By his own account, Dr. Randal Zusman, Director of blood-pressure medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital, is a pill pusher.
"I am very aggressive in the treatment of high blood pressure using drugs, using pills," he says.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Middle-aged Americans face a staggering 90 percent chance of developing the condition, according to a new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
But the drugs used to treat it must be taken daily, usually for a lifetime. And they may have side effects, such as fatigue, depression and dizziness.
So Zusman is looking for alternatives for relieving hypertension. He thinks he may have found one in the ancient Chinese technique of acupuncture.
"There is an extensive literature from Asian and Russian communities that acupuncture does indeed lower blood pressure," he says.
American researchers have already shown that special acupuncture needles, when gently inserted into specific points on the skin, can stimulate nerves that reach up into the brain and to cells in the brain that control blood pressure.
"There's evidence from our laboratory and many other laboratories to suggest that the cells quiet down after acupuncture," says Dr. John Longhurst professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine.
When those cells "quiet down," or become less active, blood vessels relax.
Clinical Trials Continue
Now, in the most rigorous study of its kind, patients with high blood pressure — 140 (systolic) over 90 (diastolic) or higher — are being given a series of 12 acupuncture treatments.
The study is not yet complete, but Zusman is already enthusiastic.
"A substantial number of our patients have responded with significant reductions in blood pressure," he says.
Patients like Rip Reeves are also impressed: "In my late 30s, I was probably 145/95; with medication, I got it down to 130/80. And since I've been on acupuncture and not taking medication, I've been averaging 125/75."
Perhaps most amazing, acupuncture's benefit can be long lasting. Some patients who received the acupuncture treatment nine months ago still have normal blood pressure.
"The implication," says Zusman, "is that 12 acupuncture treatments over a six-week period will produce a cure."
In this case, the doctors defined "cure" as maintaining normal blood pressure for one year without medication. And that, for some patients, may now be within their reach.