Can acupuncture help atrial fibrillation from recurring ?

We have been asked about the treatment of atrial fibrillation on a number of occasions, and a typical answer has been:

There are some early indications that acupuncture may have an anti-arrhythmic effect in patients with atrial fibrillation. A study published earlier this year
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312232/
concluded that there appeared to be benefits and that further large scale trials would be valuable to test the hypothesis more carefully.
However, it is only fair to say that needling a single point such as Neiguan repeatedly is not a fair representation of what a traditional acupuncturist does in practice. Although there is considerable overlap between eastern and western systems the arrhythmia typical of AF could be classified in several different ways within Chinese medicine, and the practitioner would be guided by evidence other than simply a reading of the rate of the pulse. That in turn would mean that ten people with AF might receive ten different treatments. To that extent, it is not that straightforward to extrapolate from research studies like this and conclude that 'acupuncture works'.
The skill of the practitioner lies in making sense of the symptom of AF within an entirely different theoretical framework, and understanding each presentation in each individual patient as unique. The best advice we can give any prospective patient is to contact a local practitioner to seek a short face to face consultation at which they can be given a better assessment of whether acupuncture might benefit them.
From the traditional acupuncture perspective using a single point in this way based on a single research study is quite a distance from the traditional paradigm in which the point sits. We are aware that there is a movement even within Chinese medicine to start to use this sort of formula treatment, and a very widely read paper published nearly twenty years ago, 'Pearls and String in Classical Acupuncture' has influenced a number of practitioners in the West, and is becoming slightly more common practice in China itself under the title 'best of both' - western differentiation and acupoint treatment.
Our view is that this is rather like Orwell's 'two legs good, four legs better' insofar as formula treatment may well work well for many people but probably won't work as well as a treatment which is designed for the specific imbalances of each patient. Since all patients are unique and different it would be seen as poor practice from a traditional perspective to use the same points over and over again. One of our old teachers used to refer to the use of the point as 'asking the system a question' and paying heed to the answer in following up. 'You wouldn't ask someone the same question ten times, would you?, he argued. While this may be a little extreme the general sense that acupuncture treatment is dynamic and evolutionary is critical to its nature.
It is a rather interesting footnote to this discussion that in Chinese medicine the specialist was usually looked down on as an inferior practitioner because of the narrow range of what they could treat whereas the generalist was held in great esteem precisely because they could treat anyone in whatever was the most appropriate manner.
There are a great many studies of this kind across the entire range of named conditions, and the main reason why they generate conclusions like this is because the 'gold standard' of research in the West, the randomised double blind control trial, demands that there are as few variables as possible. This means that trials and studies regularly have to use a single point or point combination to meet the research criteria. We have argued for years that this is an inappropriate way to test a dynamic system, but in Western medicine 'evidence based' is the new hallmark of acceptability. This is a cause of much concern for the very many conventional modalities which don't fit easily into trials intended for testing pharmaceuticals where neither patient nor practitioner knows what is being offered/prescribed as a guarantee of eliminating unconscious

We must have been in a long-winded mood that day! we have undertaken a sweep of the databases to see what other evidence there may be, and there is nothing new to report.

Your question, though, says 'recurrence' and this may indicate that it is something from which you used to suffer and no longer do, but worry that it might recur. This always poses problems for a health professional because it can often be impossible to prove an absence. we have this problem with people on medications for things like asthma and epilepsy where they have had no attack for years and feel that treatment has made it unlikely to happen again, but conventional medicine would rather see this as a success for the continuing treatment and keep people on lifetime treatment.

What we can say is that traditional chinese medicine was always predicated on keeping people well, not getting then better. This was seen as a failure by the doctor to do their job well, and so the aim of the system was entirely preventative. We see many patients on this basis, people who are well or who have had problems which are in abeyance, and who want to stay that way. It is always hard to show how successful this is but we take what evidence we can get. Recently one of my patients who has been coming to treatment for 25 years went to a college reunion and found that he was the only one of the group not taking some form of regular medication. Possibly random chance but he is convinced that the treatment has left him better able to handle contingent illnesses and more balanced to ward them off in the first place.

As we said above, though, each person is unique and different, and your best bet will always be to talk to a practitioner about what they think may be possible for your individual presentation.

 

Post a question

If you have any questions about acupuncture, browse our archive or ask an expert.

Ask an expert

BAcC Factsheets

Research based factsheets have been prepared for over 60 conditions especially for this website

Browse the facts