Important to know: Chronic health conditions should be addressed under direct medical supervision of your GP or consultant, and acupuncture would be an adjunct or complement to usual care – we advise that you let you doctor know when you use this approach.
Research and Resources on Blood Pressure, Hypertension and Acupuncture:
A scholarly search of the available research studies on “acupuncture” + “blood pressure” reveals over 43,400 papers from journals, and narrowing this to “RCT” leads to over 4,500 hits, of which 37% have been carried out since 2017. A scholarly search of the available research studies on “acupuncture and hypertension” reveals over 44,500 papers from journals, and narrowing this to “RCT” leads to over 4,500 hits, of which 40% have been carried out since 2017. This indicates the extent to which acupuncture is used traditionally and currently in this area; with scientific research increasing in pace and demonstrating an area worthy of scientific appraisal and consideration.
Interpreting the research:
When reading health research, it is important to know that Systematic Reviews or Meta Analyses of a large number of high-quality research studies are the very best way to be able to say to what extent a given treatment can address a condition, symptom, or set of symptoms. The next best level of evidence is the individual Randomised Controlled Study (RCT) which uses a systematic technique to compare two or more groups of patients receiving different treatments (or a treatment against a “control”, or no treatment). In acupuncture trials, the nature of the control group is of particular interest as it is hard to blind a patient to whether they are having a needle inserted or not, and even more challenging to blind the researcher/team to this.
The means and quality of how research is carried out varies considerably from country to country, and in terms of how an intervention is compared to another intervention (or a control). Of note is the fact that “sham” acupuncture (where needles are placed in apparently inert locations rather than traditional acupuncture points) is not really an inert process as it has physiological effects, so that comparing sham and “true acupuncture” may therefore not give a clear picture alone; but and form a part of a research body where acupuncture versus no treatment, vs conventional treatment or vs a different approach/modality also form part of the evidence base.
The n= figure (where quoted in research) tells you how many people were participants in the study, and usually the larger a study (when it is of good quality and design), the more likely it is to be reliable and applicable to larger populations. When (statistical) “significance” is discussed in view of studies it has a very particular meaning – it is the confidence in the data (using statistical tests) that tells us how likely a result could have just come about by chance. The lower the possibility of a chance result, the more likely it is due to the intervention in the experiment. When you are reading a trial/study, the “p” is the number telling us of significance, and this must be under 5% (or p less than 0.05) to mean we can say it is a (statistically) “significant” result.
A meta-analysis of studies compared approaches to treating essential hypertension (31 trials; n=2649; Tan et al, 2019), concluded that acupuncture may be useful in addressing hypertension, albeit that quality of the studies was limited and further research was warranted. Another analysis of 10 trials in BP amongst stroke patients (Hong et al, 2020; n=847) concluded that acupuncture may be a suitable treatment option for regulating BP after stroke but also noted the low-quality in the data and as need for further well-designed trials.
Niu et al, (2019) examined 13 systematic reviews of 14 non-drug therapies (including acupuncture) in addressing high blood pressure. They concluded that massage and acupuncture plus an antihypertensive drug may benefit people who wanted to lower their blood pressure; once again methodological issues around available research limited the strength of the recommendations.
Mechanism of action:
Animal model studies have shown physiological effects from auricular (ear) acupuncture on the Heart point, whereby using this point regulates cardiovascular function (heart rate, blood pressure). Cardiac related nerve cells were shown to be regulated by the use of Heart (auricular point), lowering blood pressure in the arteries, by means of activating a certain type of nerve cell receptor (baroreceptor sensitive neurons) in part of the brainstem (nucleus tractus solitarius) (Gao et al, 2011).
Acupuncture has been shown in many mechanism-of-action trials to be sympathoinhibitory (able to downregulate the sympathetic nervous system) and lower the stress response in brain and nervous system (Middlekauff et al, 2002).
Regarding Your Individual Condition and Symptoms:
Whilst the scientific studies are of great interest to researchers and acupuncturists in terms of comparing protocols, for the patient not versed in research they are less accessible, which is why when we asked “can acupuncture work for my (condition or symptom) we are not able to give a simple yes or no response. We are able to tell you what experience we have had in our decades of experience in practise, of the types of outcomes we have seen in similar cases, and give you an idea of our level of experience and knowledge in that area, and how this could relate to your own individual situation. For this, we recommend booking a free telephone consultation where we can answer any questions you have and give a realistic appraisal of what acupuncture may be able to provide.
British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) Hypertension factsheet on the research into acupuncture in this condition
BAcC Stroke Factsheet
BAcC Stress Factsheet
Gao XY et al. Acupuncture-like stimulation at auricular point Heart evokes cardiovascular inhibition via activating the cardiac-related neurons in the nucleus tractus solitarius. Brain Res. 2011;1397:19-27.
Middlekauff, H.R., Hui, K., Yu, J.L., Hamilton, M.A., Fonarow, G.C., Moriguchi, J., MacLellan, W.R. and Hage, A., 2002. Acupuncture inhibits sympathetic activation during mental stress in advanced heart failure patients. Journal of cardiac failure, 8(6), pp.399-406.
Tan, X., Pan, Y., Su, W., Gong, S., Zhu, H., Chen, H. and Lu, S., 2019. Acupuncture therapy for essential hypertension: a network meta-analysis. Annals of translational medicine, 7(12).
Hong, S., Ahn, L., Kwon, J. and Choi, D.J., 2020. Acupuncture for Regulating Blood Pressure of Stroke Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 26(12), pp.1105-1116.
Niu, J.F., Zhao, X.F., Hu, H.T., Wang, J.J., Liu, Y.L. and Lu, D.H., 2019. Should acupuncture, biofeedback, massage, Qi gong, relaxation therapy, device-guided breathing, yoga and tai chi be used to reduce blood pressure?: recommendations based on high-quality systematic reviews. Complementary therapies in medicine, 42, pp.322-331.