Heart failure is a progressive condition marked by a worsening of the heart’s ability to pump enough blood to supply the body’s needs. It is most often caused by a heart attack, years of high blood pressure or other injuries to the cardiovascular system and kills about 250,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the Heart Failure Society of America. One of the most debilitating results of heart failure is shortness of breath and severe fatigue with exercise. But a new study by German scientists shows an ancient non-drug therapy — acupuncture — can dramatically improve exercise tolerance in patients suffering from chronic heart failure.
The new research, just published in the medical journal Heart, involved two groups of heart failure patients who were being treated with conventional medications and were in stable condition. Both groups of research subjects believed they were receiving ten authentic acupuncture treatments. However, only one group was given real acupuncture based on traditional Chinese medicine. These treatments focused on acupuncture points believed to boost general strength, influence the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and reduce inflammation markers. The other control group was treated with special placebo needles that only simulated acupuncture needle pricks but did not break the skin.
The results? After the real acupuncture treatments, the patients could walk far longer than those in the placebo group. What’s more, even though the measurable work capacity of the heart was found to be unchanged, the acupuncture treated heart patients recovered more quickly after exercise and reported they felt far less exhausted.
So what was the acupuncture actually doing to improve heart failure symptoms? The research team, headed by cardiologist Dr. Johannes Backs of Heidelberg University Hospital, pointed out in a press statement that previous studies have shown that the ability of heart failure patients to tolerate exercise is independent of the pumping function of the heart and appears to stem primarily from the muscles. Inflammation chemical messengers in the blood are increased in chronic heart failure and that’s what makes muscles tire easily, causing extreme fatigue.
“The blood level of a certain messenger, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) actually drops after the real acupuncture treatment. Since TNF alpha leads to a reduction of muscle mass and muscle strength among other things, this would explain the positive effect (of acupuncture) on skeletal muscle function,” Dr. Arnt Kristen, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement to the media.
The research team also noted that heart failure is much more complex than previously assumed and involves an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system and various nerve transmitters. “This is precisely where acupuncture may intervene, by bringing these processes back into balance — it influences the autonomic sympathetic nervous system (excitation), boosts the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation), and also has an anti-inflammatory affect,” the researchers explained in the press statement.