Acupuncture Doesn't Lower Blood Pressure

Popular Eastern Medicine Technique Fails to Control Mildly Elevated Blood Pressure in Small Study

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on May 25, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

May 25, 2004 (New York) -- Proponents of acupuncture say it is effective for treating dozens of ailments including allergies, asthma, sports injuries, and migraines, but results of new study show that acupuncture is not effective for treating high blood pressure.

"There are studies that report about 5 billion visits to acupuncture specialists each year. In Texas there are a number of centers that advertise acupuncture for high blood pressure, so we decided to test the treatment in a well-designed, scientific study," Norman M. Kaplan, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, tells WebMD.

The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. The results were recently reported at the 19th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Society of Hypertension in New York City.

Acupuncture's Effects Temporary

Kaplan used ambulatory blood pressure monitors that record blood pressures around-the-clock to measure the effects of acupuncture in a group of volunteers.

Immediately after acupuncture treatment systolic blood pressure, which is the upper number that appears first in a blood pressure measurement, dropped slightly, "but this effect is not sustained," Kaplan says.

Moreover, there was not even a temporary change in diastolic pressure, which is the bottom number that is reported as the second number in a blood pressure measurement.

Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, tells WebMD that it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from Kaplan's study because the numbers are so small -- only 11 volunteers participated in the 4-week-long study.

But Lloyd-Jones, who wasn't involved in the acupuncture study, says that the "evidence from this type of intensive blood pressure monitoring is most compelling. It demonstrates that blood pressure did not change."

Kaplan agrees that with such small numbers the results "should not be overinterpreted and I don't think we should make too broad an implication. But, the fact is that we don't have any other controlled trial data on which to make a judgment, so I think the findings are useful."

A Role for Acupuncture?

Researchers recruited middle-aged volunteers who had normal blood pressure or mild high blood pressure. The average blood pressure at baseline was 135/85 mmHg.

The latest expert recommendations define high blood pressure as 140/90 or higher, while 120/80 or less is considered optimal blood pressure. Blood pressures that fall between 120/80 and 139/89 are now termed prehypertension, which indicates the need for lifestyle interventions such as weight loss, increased exercise, and limiting salt in the diet to lower blood pressure before it becomes hypertension.

The volunteers underwent electrical acupuncture sessions using all the blood pressure acupuncture points identified in traditional Chinese medicine for 30 minutes, two to three times a week, for four weeks. Electrical acupuncture needles were used and the procedure was done by a certified acupuncture specialist.

Kaplan says that the relatively healthy population recruited for the study could explain the lack of effect. "It may be that acupuncture is beneficial for people who have severe high blood pressure," he says. But he says that he doubts the outcome would be different if the baseline blood pressures were higher.

The real lesson from the study is that "there are good and effective treatments for hypertension that have been proven effective in carefully designed studies -- treatments that range from diet and exercise to drug therapies. All of those standard treatments can dramatically reduce blood pressure. There is no need to seek alternative therapies," says Kaplan.

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SOURCES: American Society of Hypertension 19th Annual Scientific Meeting, New York City, May 18-22, 2004. Norman Kaplan, MD, University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine; author, "Lack of effect of repetitive acupuncture on clinic and ambulatory blood pressure," Poster 1. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago.
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