Pressure Points: Can Pins and Needles Control Blood Pressure? Researchers Are Investigating the Potential of This 3,000-Year-Old Therapy to Treat Hypertension

By Perry, Patrick | The Saturday Evening Post, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Pressure Points: Can Pins and Needles Control Blood Pressure? Researchers Are Investigating the Potential of This 3,000-Year-Old Therapy to Treat Hypertension


Perry, Patrick, The Saturday Evening Post


At 6'5" and 225 pounds, Rip Reeves is a lean and limber athletic machine. Since 1980, the Boston native has competed in the Ironman USA competitions, demanding multisport events that require intense concentration and tremendous physical stamina. Few would guess, looking at the 41-year-old jock, that for the past 30 years he has been competing against another formidable foe--high blood pressure.

As early as his second-grade year, school nurses raised an eyebrow during routine physical exams, advising Reeves to tell his parents and doctor about his blood pressure reading.

"For as long as I can remember, they would always say, `You need to talk to a pediatrician about blood pressure,'" Reeves says, adding that he inherited a predisposition for hypertension from his father and grandfather, both of whom suffered from the condition. "Blood pressure is something that we have been monitoring my whole life. My whole goal was to do anything to delay having to go on medication."

Though lean, Reeves tailored his diet and training regimen to avoid what his doctors thought was inevitable--medication to help control his escalating blood pressure.

"Doctors pretty much knew that it was a waiting game on when I would probably have to go on medication," Reeves says. "Typically, blood pressure increases as one ages, anyway. My blood pressure from my early 30s to my early 40s shifted from below 140/80 to above the 140/90 range. By the time I was 39, I was pretty much averaging 135-145 over 90-95. At that point, they said, `Let's go ahead and put you on medication.' I was really bummed out."

Like many other patients on anti-hypertensive medications, Reeves experienced, he says, "huge problems," including weight loss, lethargy, nausea, fatigue, and lower-extremity swelling. While his medications helped maintain his blood pressure in the 135/85 range, the athlete wished to be free of medication, which at times interfered with his training. When his physician, Dr. Randall Zusman, called about a new study at Massachusetts General, Reeves was elated.

"My doctor thought I would be perfect for this study, because if it worked, I could get off medication," Reeves recalls. "He knew that I would just jump at the opportunity. I had never had acupuncture. He told me what they were going to do. Immediately, I am going, `Yeah, right. You are going to stick some needles in me, and that is going to cure this problem?' But, I thought, the worst-case scenario is that I would get a wealth of information on my body. My theory was, What do I have to lose?"

In May 2001, Reeves entered the Stop Hypertension with Acupuncture Research Program (SHARP)--a 180-person pilot study to determine in rigorous scientific fashion the potential benefits of using acupuncture in treating high blood pressure. Reeves stopped taking medication and entered the trial, receiving 12 acupuncture treatments over a short period. Even though Reeves remains uncertain about which part of the study he was placed in--the control group or those receiving acupuncture therapy, the results were dramatic. Reeves' blood pressure dropped and remains in the 125/75 range.

And while the results of the pilot study remain undetermined, Rip Reeves has no doubt about the therapy's success.

"You can't argue with the results. Doctors shake their heads and say, `This is just phenomenal.' After the first treatment, my blood pressure was noticeably lower, very gradually going down from there. I have been off medication for over a year now," Reeves happily reports of his experience. "I have not had an acupuncture treatment in six months. So far, I am a poster child for success."

To learn more about the SHARP study, we spoke with Dr. Randall Zusman, principal investigator of the ongoing study and director of Hypertension and Vascular Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Q: Could you tell our readers about your investigation into the use of acupuncture in the treatment of hypertension? …

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