Acupuncture has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat hypertension and associated symptoms for over 2,500 years. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese technique based on the belief that a vibrant life energy, known as Qi or Chi (pronounced chee) flows through the body along special channels known as meridians. The flow of energy through these meridians is believed to depend on the balance of two opposing forces: the Yin and the Yang.
There are twelve main meridians – six of which have a Yang polarity and are related to hollow organs (eg heart), and six which are Yin relating mainly to solid organs (eg liver) plus others that have a controlling function. Another 8 meridians have a regulating function, making 20 channels in total.
Qi energy flows along these meridians and becomes concentrated at certain points – known as acupoints – where it can enter or leave the body. Scientific instruments that measure electrical potential across the skin show that acupoints have a lower electrical resistance than surrounding areas and can be pinpointed with great accuracy. Traditionally, 365 acupoints were identified on the meridians but many more have been now been discovered and around 2000 acupoints are illustrated on modern charts.
What is acupuncture?
The flow of Qi through the meridians is easily disrupted by diet and lifestyle factors, including stress, and these imbalances in energy flow are believed to result in ill health.
In traditional Chinese medicine, high blood pressure is believed to result from blockages in energy flow along the liver meridian.
Acupuncture is designed to stimulate or suppress the flow of Qi along specific meridians by inserting fine, sterile, disposable needles a few millimetres into your skin at selected acupoints. You may notice a slight pricking sensation, tingling or buzzing as the needle is inserted or rotated but should not feel any pain.
Acupuncture needles are usually left in place for 10 to 30 minutes and are flicked or rotated to stimulate Qi and draw out, or disperse energy from the point.
In some cases, needles are stimulated with electricity (electroacupuncture) or by burning a small cone of a dried Chinese herb (usually wild Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris) near the point to warm the skin. This is known as moxibustion and is believed to stimulate a weak Qi in areas that are cold or painful.
Acupuncture for high blood pressure
Acupuncture can relieve blood pressure in several ways:
- by triggering the release of natural, opiate-like substances in the brain (endorphins) which have a relaxing, anti-stress effect
- by dilating blood vessels
- by stimulating the kidneys to flush excess sodium and fluid from the body
- through effects on hormone secretion
- by reducing circulating levels of inflammatory substances such as TNF-alpha and IL-6.
In a trial published in Clinical and Experimental Hypertension in 1997, fifty people with untreated essential hypertension received acupuncture and, within 30 minutes their blood pressure decreased from an average of 169/107 mmHg to 151/96 mm Hg, with heart rate reducing from 77 to 72. Blood levels of renin, a hormone involved in blood pressure regulation, also fell significantly.
Analysis of 3 trials comparing real acupuncture with sham acupuncture (in which false points were stimulated) found that real acupuncture reduced blood pressure by an average of 5/3 mmHg although this was not statistically significant. When given with antihypertensive medication, acupuncture did significantly reduce blood pressure by an average of 8/4 mmHg.
Another analysis of 23 clinical trials, involving 1788 people, found that combining real acupuncture with medication reduced blood pressure by an average of 7.47/4.22 mmHg more than sham acupuncture plus medication. Again, acupuncture on its own showed no significant effect compared with medication (but was at least as effective as medication).
Other studies have shown that acupuncture can help to improve blood pressure following a stroke, improve the function of the left side of the heart, and that it can improve the effectiveness of medication in some people who were not responding adequately to anti-hypertensive drugs alone.
Researchers from California have also shown that acupuncture can blunt the increase in blood pressure that is caused by mental stress – in those receiving acupuncture, BP rose by only 2.9 mmHg during stress as opposed to 5.4 mmHg in those receiving sham acupuncture.
Acupuncture appears to be safe in people receiving anticoagulant medication – for example following a heart attack, or following hip/knee surgery.
Choosing an acupuncture practitioner
For a complex, long-standing problem such as hypertension, you will benefit from having one or two acupuncture treatments per week for at least two months. As standards of training and experience vary widely, aim to:
Select a therapist on the basis of personal recommendation from a satisfied client whom you know and whose opinion you trust.
- Check what qualifications the therapist has, and check whether they are registered with a relevant organisation. The organisation should be able to tell you what training their members have undertaken, their code of ethics and refer you to qualified practitioners in your area.
- Find out how long your course of treatment will last and how much it is likely to cost.
- Ask how much experience they have had in treating high blood pressure and what their success rate is.
If your blood pressure is raised, self-monitoring is key to maintaining good control.
Click here for advice on choosing a blood pressure monitor to use at home.
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