A progressively worsening condition, heart failure is characterized by a worsening inability of the heart to pump adequate amounts of blood to meet the needs of the body. This condition is most usually the result of injuries to the cardiovascular system, years of high blood pressure, or of a heart attack. According to the Heart Failure Society of America, in the US, heart failure has been killing a quarter of a million people each year. Severe fatigue with shortness of breath is one of the most debilitating symptoms of heart failure. A new German study, however, has discovered that a very old non-drug treatment — acupuncture — can significantly boost exercise tolerance among chronic heart failure patients.
Just recently published in Heart, a medical journal, this new study was participated in by two groups of hear failure patients who were being treated with conventional drugs and were in stable condition. The two groups were administered with real acupuncture treatments but only group, however, received acupuncture treatment based on TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practice. The TCM acupuncture group received treatments that were supposed to lessen inflammation markers, affect the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and boost general strength. Treatment received by the control group was a special placebo acupuncture therapy in which the needles merely mimicked acupuncture needle pricks but did not penetrate the skin.
The patients in the acupuncture TCM group were able to walk much further than the patients in the placebo group. In addition, the acupuncture TCM patients reported far less exhaustion and recovered more quickly after exercise than the placebo group even though the measurable work capacity of the heart was found to be unchanged.
The question then is how was acupuncture in King of Prussia able to improve the symptoms of heart failure?
Heidelberg University Hospital cardiologist Johannes Backs, M.D., noted that past research has shown that the patients suffering from heart failure had the ability to tolerate exercise independent of the heart’s pumping function and this appears to come primarily from the muscles. In chronic heart failure, there is an increase in the inflammation chemical messengers in the blood which is what makes muscles easily tire, resulting in severe fatigue.
One of the authors of the study, Arnt Kristen, M.D., explained to the media that “The level of blood of a certain messenger, TNF alpha (tumor necrosis factor alpha), actually falls after treatment of real acupuncture.” She added that “the positive effect (of acupuncture) on skeletal muscle function can be explained this way since TNF alpha results in a decrease of muscle strength and muscle mass among other things.”
The researchers explained that heart failure is a much more complex condition than previously believed and an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system and various nerve transmitters are involved. This is precisely the reason why acupuncture works – it restores balance into these processes. Acupuncture has an anti-inflammatory affect, enhances the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation), and affects the autonomic sympathetic nervous system (excitation).