Arrhythmia and heart failure

A cardiac arrhythmia is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat: the heart can beat too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia) or with an irregular rhythm (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute 2014). Most arrhythmias are harmless, but some can be serious or even life-threatening. During an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, and this result in a lack of blood flow to the brain, heart, and other organs (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute 2014).

In general, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting physical and emotional well-being.

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Research has shown that acupuncture treatment may specifically benefit arrhythmias and heart failure, and help cardiovascular function overall, by:

  • minimising myocardial injury, probably partially by reducing serum cardiac troponin (integral to heart muscle contraction and a marker for damage to the muscle) and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) levels

  • regulating MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinase) signalling pathways (e.g. p38 and JNK) that are involved in cardiovascular pathogenesis such as cardiac hypertrophy, and modulating the upstream neuroendocrine factors that control these pathways

  • reducing plasma levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline and vasoactive intestinal peptide, so suppressing tachycardia;

  • regulating the autonomic nervous system (the main controller for heart rate and rhythm) , partly via opiate receptors in the hypothalamus

  • mediating heart rate variability (low HRV is associated with various cardiac pathologies) 

  • inhibiting cardiovascular function (heart rate, blood pressure) by activating baroreceptor sensitive neurons in the nucleus tractus solitarius (specific to auricular, not body, acupuncture)

  • affecting activation of the brain cortex and hence heart function

  • acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry

  • reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors.