We all know that exercise is good for your muscles and your heart (which is after all another muscle) is no exception. A good cardio workout does a body, and your heart, good! Unfortunately, one of the big problems with coronary artery disease is that it can make exercise much more difficult. Your mind may be willing to go out there and brave the treadmill, but your body responds with a resounding you-want-me-to-do-what followed by a definite I-don’t-think-so!
Even when the mind and spirit are willing, persons suffering from various forms of heart disease (such as refractory angina or chronic heart failure) may find themselves physically unable to tolerate even the mildest exertion. The simple act of walking across the room may leave them fatigued, exhausted and fighting for breath. This creates a kind of a catch-22 between wanting and needing to exercise so the heart will get stronger and health will improve, and the lack of physical ability, due to heart disease, to put an exercise plan into action.
A solution to this exercise dilemma may reside in the ancient practice of acupuncture. Chinese in origin, the practice of acupuncture is thousands of years old. Acupuncture practitioners believe that you can rebalance your life force (chi or qi, pronounced “chee”) through the insertion of thin needles at specific, predetermined acupuncture points along meridian lines on your body. (According to traditional Chinese acupuncture practice, there are 14 predetermined acupuncture meridians, or lines, on your body. Different points along the meridians are mapped to specific diseases or maladies.)
According to one recent German research study, the practice of acupuncture may improve the ability to tolerate exercise for those who suffer from chronic heart disease. The study, conducted by the Department of Internal Medicine III (Cardiology, Angiology and Pneumology) at Heidelberg University Hospital, found that the use of acupuncture increased muscle strength (skeletal muscles – not heart muscles) resulting in an increased ability of the participants to walk further. The acupuncture treatments did not have any impact on the heart’s ability to function properly and get pumping.
All of the participants in the study were:
• diagnosed with heart failure
• currently receiving conventional treatements
• in stable condition
Participants were divided into two separate groups. One group received ten “real” acupuncture sessions while the other group received ten sessions with “dull” acupuncture needles which felt like a skin prick but did not actually break the skin. All participants thought that they were receiving real acupuncture treatments. The acupuncture points targeted were those believed to influence inflammation, promote general health, and boost the sympathetic nervous system (over excitation) and parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation).
Researchers found that the group who received the actual acupuncture treatments were able to walk further than their counterparts, with less fatigue and exhaustion, along with a quicker recovery after exertion. In addition, researchers found that tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) levels dropped after receiving acupuncture treatments. To over simplify, TNF alpha is an inflammation marker which tells the muscles that they are simply too tired to do the work set before them. TNF alpha levels are high in persons with chronic heart failure. Researchers believe that this drop in TNF alpha is the reason why participants receiving acupuncture treatments showed an improvement in skeletal muscle function. It’s believed that this may be the first study of its kind to determine whether or not acupuncture can positively influence diseases such as heart failure.
The study results pose an interesting question. Is it possible that acupuncture could provide long term, and relatively low-cost, benefits to heart patients? More studies are certain to follow.
University Hospital Heidelberg (2010, July 1). Acupuncture improves exercise tolerance in heart patients, German study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2010/07/100701103409.htm
Acupuncture, The Mayo Clinic, 11 Dec 2009, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/acupuncture/MY00946
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