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Acupuncture for Hypertension

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Although traditional Chinese medicine advocates the use of acupuncture not only to induce analgesia but also to treat essential hypertension, acupuncture's postulated antihypertensive efficacy in humans has not been subjected to rigorous Western scientific testing. Before advocating acupuncture as an effective complementary/alternative medicine strategy for essential hypertension, it is necessary to demonstrate that the beneficial effects of acupuncture are scientifically robust, long-lasting, and explicable in terms of modern scientific mechanisms. In spontaneously hypertensive rats, acupuncture-like electrical stimulation of thinly myelinated (Group III) somatic afferents activates central endorphin (naloxone-sensitive) pathways that elicit long-lasting decreases in sympathetic nerve activity (SNA) and blood pressure. The ability to record SNA with microelectrodes in conscious humans provides a new opportunity to test this novel mechanistic hypothesis in patients undergoing electroacupuncture, a modification of the ancient technique that provides a quantifiable and reproducible stimulus to human skeletal muscle afferents. Using a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled design, we will test the following major hypotheses: Electroacupuncture produces a long-lasting reduction in SNA, thereby providing a safe and effective complementary treatment of human hypertension. Given the enormous interest in acupuncture by our lay public, but the paucity of Western scientific data about its efficacy in cardiovascular disorders, our studies in normotensive and hypertensive humans should provide a conceptual framework for deciding whether to accept or reject the large body of Chinese (and Russian) literature advocating acupuncture as a safe and effective treatment of essential hypertension and other cardiovascular disorders (such as heart failure, and myocardial ischemia).


Case studies and small trials suggest that acupuncture may effectively treat hypertension, but no large randomized trials have been reported. The Stop Hypertension with the Acupuncture Research Program pilot trial enrolled 192 participants with untreated blood pressure (BP) in the range of 140/90 to 179/109 mm Hg. The design of the trial combined rigorous methodology and adherence to principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Participants were weaned off antihypertensives before enrollment and were then randomly assigned to 3 treatments: individualized traditional Chinese acupuncture, standardized acupuncture at preselected points, or invasive sham acupuncture. Participants received 12 acupuncture treatments over 6 to 8 weeks. During the first 10 weeks after random assignment, BP was monitored every 14 days, and antihypertensives were prescribed if BP exceeded 180/110 mm Hg. The mean BP decrease from baseline to 10 weeks, the primary end point, did not differ significantly between participants randomly assigned to active (individualized and standardized) versus sham acupuncture (systolic BP: –3.56 versus –3.84 mm Hg, respectively; 95% CI for the difference: –4.0 to 4.6 mm Hg; P=0.90; diastolic BP: –4.32 versus –2.81 mm Hg, 95% CI for the difference: –3.6 to 0.6 mm Hg; P=0.16). Categorizing participants by age, race, gender, baseline BP, history of antihypertensive use, obesity, or primary traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis did not reveal any subgroups for which the benefits of active acupuncture differed significantly from sham acupuncture. Active acupuncture provided no greater benefit than invasive sham acupuncture in reducing systolic or diastolic BP.


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