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Acupuncture May Spark a Healthier Heart Rhythm

Traditional acupuncture showed an improvement in heart rate variability, which may reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death for patients with coronary heart disease (CHD), according to findings of a pilot study by researchers at the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center.

Heart rate variability, which refers to beat to beat variation in intervals between heart rates, is a sign of a healthy cardiovascular system. “People who aren’t cardiovascularly fit or who’ve had a heart attack have less variability in their heart rate and are at greater risk for arrhythmia,” says Puja Mehta, MD, FACC, study lead and director of the Vascular Function Research Lab.

The principal investigator of the study, C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, along with our acupuncture experts at Cedars-Sinai designed the study to see if traditional acupuncture can improve heart rate variability in heart disease patients. In the blinded, randomized study, which completed in 2012, 151 patients were divided into three groups: those who received traditional acupuncture with needle insertion at cardiac-specific acupuncture points, those who received a “sham” treatment (no needle insertion) at non-acupuncture sites, and a control group, which had no treatment.

Patients who received cardiac-specific acupuncture had a positive change in their heart rate variability. These exciting findings were presented at the American College of Cardiology national meeting in March of 2012. “Our findings suggest that acupuncture is having an effect on the nerve pathways between the brain and the heart,” says Dr. Mehta.

For patients with arrhythmias or irregular heart rhythms, the answer often is an implantable defibrillator. But some patients are not good candidates for this option because of age, medical condition, or personal preference.

The study lays the groundwork for a larger outcome-based clinical trial of traditional acupuncture in patients with known CHD.

Support came from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Also providing key funding were the Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Research Foundation, Women’s Guild of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Edythe L. Broad Women’s Heart Research Fellowship, and the Barbra Streisand Women’s Cardiovascular Research and Education Program.

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