Blood Pressure Beyond Numbers
By Sara Calabro
For people who are concerned about blood pressure, it’s been a confusing month.
First, an analysis suggested that even people with normal blood pressure could benefit from taking antihypertensive drugs. Then, less than a week later, a separate analysis showed that “normal” may be higher than was previously thought. Finally, a report debunked the theory that body shape—whether someone is an “apple” or “pear” type—can increase heart-disease risk, a key factor in determining eligibility for blood-pressure meds.
The further we dig into medical research, the less cut-and-dried things seem. These recent findings on blood pressure do little to help people determine the risk-benefit ratio of going on medication—if anything, they muddle the picture even more.
The only thing that emerges clearly is the need for a broader perspective on hypertension, one that asks why blood pressure is high in the first place. Acupuncture achieves this by looking beyond the numbers to remedy the underlying imbalance.
One Acupuncture Perspective on Hypertension
There are several methods of using acupuncture to treat hypertension. To demonstrate how acupuncture addresses the root cause of the condition, we’ll look closely at one. The described approach was developed by Kiiko Matsumoto, a renowned Japanese acupuncturist whose style is influenced by classical Chinese medical texts as well as Western physiology, and widely practiced throughout the U.S.
Blood-pressure readings, while important, do not provide a complete picture. In order to prevent blood pressure from going back up in the absence of treatment, which is what happens when people go off medication, acupuncturists look for the source of the problem. Information gleaned from observing and touching the patient is used to determine an acupuncture treatment plan.
Contradicting recent findings that dimiss the apple-or-pear theory, Matsumoto supports body shape as an indicator of blood-pressure problems. Apple shapes tend toward high blood pressure while pears tend toward low. (For detail, click the image, from Kiiko Matsumoto’s Clinical Strategies Vol. I.)
Palpation is used to solidify point selection. The acupuncturist feels for puffiness, stiffness and/or tenderness in three locations: behind the head along the occipital attachment (near acupuncture point UB10), at the upper attachment of the trapezius muscle, and at the outer lower border of the scapula spine.
Observation and palpation are especially important in cases where people are unaware of their blood-pressure numbers and coming to acupuncture for something other than hypertension. Symptoms commonly seen in patients with blood-pressure imbalances include the following: a feeling of pressure anywhere in the body, depression, dizziness, stiff neck and shoulders, headaches, fatigue, irritability, palpitations, shortness of breath, red face, and a history of heart disease. Often, by regulating the blood pressure, these other seemingly unrelated problems clear up as well.
Acupuncturists combine verbal, visual and palpatory findings to develop treatment plans.
Matsumoto’s treatment for blood pressure involves the Spleen and Pericardium channels, an empirical blood-pressure point behind the third toe, and ashi points on the lower border of the scapula spine. (For details, see pp. 120-5 in Kiiko Matsumoto’s Clinical Strategies Vol. I.)
Matsumoto’s explanation for why she uses the Spleen channel highlights how acupuncturists apply classical medical texts to clinical settings:
“According to the Nan-Ching, pensiveness, brooding and over thinking correspond to the Spleen. However, in the Su-Wen, the character used for the emotion that corresponds to the Spleen describes either the word ‘weird’ or ‘pressure.’ The emotion of pressure can be related to the actual feeling of pressure anywhere in the body, such as in the chest, sinuses or head, or blood pressure. This idea, that the Spleen is related to any kind of pressure, led Master Nagano [Matsumoto's teacher] to find the points on the Spleen meridian (SP6 and SP9) that actually reduce this feeling on a local and systemic level.”
Note that this explanation does not specify high or low blood pressure. Matsumoto’s treatment for high blood pressure is almost identical to the one for low blood pressure. From an acupuncture perspective, blood pressure problems are a matter of inadequate regulation. Whether blood pressure is high or low, the problem is that blood is not circulating the way it should be.
Unlike the biomedical approach, which introduces foreign substances to artificially bring down blood pressure, acupuncture gets the body’s own components functioning in the right way. In essence, it allows the body to direct the medicine rather than the medicine forcing the body in a particular direction.
The latest news on hypertension has left many people more confused than ever about how to interpret their blood-pressure readings. But the new information is clarifying in that it affirms that numbers don’t tell the whole story. This puts the onus on patients to look a little deeper and connect with their true states of health.
Acupuncture can help in this process. In addition to effectively reducing blood pressure, acupuncture is therapeutic by nature of its approach. It encourages a broader understanding of disease, which—as recent research has confirmed—is critical to achieving widespread reduction in hypertension rates.
Photo by Sara Calabro