Can Acupuncture Reduce Blood Pressure?

As effective as single-drug therapy, but practicality an issue

Acupuncture. Science Photo Library - Adam Gault/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

You may have heard, from your local acupuncturist or your Aunt Millie, that acupuncture has been proven to treat hypertension. As it turns out, this is not an outright fabrication. It is, however, an exaggeration.

“Acupuncture” is a family of procedures derived from Chinese practices that began 2000 years ago, which have been used over this time to treat a variety of medical conditions. Modern acupuncturists have added several new features to the traditional insertion and manipulation of needles, including magnets, electrical stimulation, lasers and ultrasound.

The variety of techniques being used, along with the fact that acupuncture is based on ancient Chinese philosophy rather than on any scientifically verifiable physiological processes, has made it difficult to prove or disprove its efficacy (in the modern scientific sense) for any particular purpose.

Acupuncture and Hypertension

There is only one randomized clinical trial evaluating acupuncture for hypertension. The study was positive.

This study was published in 2007 in Circulation. It reported that acupuncture - when performed to the precise specifications of ancient Chinese tradition - was roughly as effective as single drug therapy in reducing blood pressure.

The study enrolled 160 patients in Germany and China with mild to moderate hypertension, and randomized them to receive either traditional acupuncture (performed by Chinese physicians accredited in acupuncture) or a sham procedure.

The “sham” procedure was,in fact, also acupuncture. It consisted of identical acupuncture sessions, complete with needle insertions, with one major difference. Namely, the insertion points were not the precise sites prescribed by traditional Chinese medicine for treating blood pressure. Both groups of patients underwent 22 sessions of 30 minutes each over a period of six weeks.

At the end of that time, the systolic and diastolic blood pressures in patients receiving traditional Chinese acupuncture were significantly reduced (by approximately 5 mm Hg and 3 mm Hg, respectively).

Unfortunately, when acupuncture was discontinued their blood pressures returned to baseline values within three months. This level of blood pressure reduction is roughly the same as would typically occur with single-drug therapy or with aggressive lifestyle changes (exercise and salt restriction).

What Does This Mean?

A single small clinical trial is never regarded as definitive proof by experts, and that is certainly the case here.

Even if you accept these results, it is remarkable that in this study acupuncture was effective only when the operators used the precise insertion points as prescribed by ancient Chinese tradition, and also applied the precisely prescribed angle and depth of needle insertion, along with the the correct needle manipulations at each insertion point.

Any of us can find an acupuncturist on any street corner in any major city, but how many of us can find one who is actually steeped in formal, precise, ancient Chinese techniques, and is fully trained to apply them?

So, even if acupuncture may work in treating mild hypertension, this approach seems a bit impractical for most of us. Not only do you need to find a certified expert in traditional Chinese medicine, but you also need to find him/her three times a week, forever.

Whatever you think of this study, for the average person taking a pill every day - or even exercising for 20 minutes three times a week and watching your salt intake - will turn out to be the more practical approach to treating mild hypertension.


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Article Sources
  • Flachskampf FA, Gallasch J, Gefeller O, et al. Randomized trial of acupuncture to lower blood pressure. Circulation 2007; DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.661140.