Twice-monthly health columns are by a practicing cardiologist, clinical professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine and founder of the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity in Bingham Farms. He's an author and has appeared on national TV, including "Dr. Oz" and "The Doctors Show."
By Dr. Joel Kahn
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
After a year of adjusting medications and supplements to control a heart rhythm condition in my patient, she came in with a big smile and a bounce. In this case, she was the teacher. On her own, "Billie" had begun frequent sessions with an acupuncturist who inserts thin needles into the body. In just a short time, episodes of heart pounding diminished and she documented a distinct improvement.
Her experience led me to research the use of acupuncture more broadly, and this component of traditional Chinese medicine is now part of my "tool box" for restoring health at a root-cause level. Though more research is needed, I've seen a positive response from acupuncture therapy in heart patients with five heart risks:
► Angina pain: This choking, squeezing or pressure-like feeling in the chest is brought on by activity and quickly relieved by rest or a nitroglycerine tablet. It usually results from a severely blocked large heart artery, but many patients have apparently normal arteries on angiography, and disease of small arteries is also suspected.
The angina comes from a lack of oxygen supply to active heart muscle cells. Perhaps by reducing activity of the sympathetic nervous system to the heart muscle (the fight-or-flight system), selected patients with angina respond to acupuncture with fewer symptoms and better ability to walk long distances.
► Congestive heart failure: This potentially serious condition can result from a heart attack or viral damage, but is often seen with strong hearts that relax inadequately. Research studies have shown improvements in the ability to walk longer distances without shortness of breath after acupuncture therapy, and I have seen similar results. Again, reduction in sympathetic nerve activity is the supposed reason.
► Arrhythmia: Just as my patient "Billie" taught me, the heart is an energy organ with every beat controlled by a wave of electricity and recovery. Furthermore, while the heart is richly supplied by nerve fibers originating in the brain, it also has many nerve communications from the heart back to the brain.
With every breath in, the heart rate should speed up subtly; with every exhale, it should slow. This is measured as heart rate variability, or HRV. The better your HRV, the healthier you are.
Acupuncture has been shown to improve HRV in humans. Studies of various heart rhythm problems show promise for reducing or eliminating the distress of palpitations such as atrial fibrillation.
► Hypertension: Overdrive of the sympathetic nervous system plays a role in blood pressure increases that can damage kidneys, arteries, eyes and the brain. I have seen individual patients benefit from a lowering in blood pressure with a consistent practice of acupuncture, and the American College of Cardiology considers it a promising alternative therapy. Experts still are divided as to how predictably acupuncture results in normal blood pressure.
► Smoking cessation: Though tobacco use has dropped, smoking remain the No. 1 root cause of deaths due to heart disease and cancer. Acupuncture may help nicotine-addicted patients quit this habit. Over 3,000 patients have been studied in randomized trials of the role of acupuncture to quit smoking, and most research shows a positive effect.
Traditional therapies do not work for all people, and some prefer a holistic approach without drugs. I'm grateful that "Billie" explored an alternative approach of her own to reduce her palpitations.
I plan to continue to explore the use of acupuncture and other Eastern practices, such as tai chi and yoga, in treatment plans. Maybe they can help someone you know.