Over the last several decades, there has been an explosion of articles on acupuncture, including studies that have begun to explore mechanisms underlying its analgesic and cardiovascular actions. Modulation of cardiovascular function is most effective during manual and low-frequency, low-intensity electroacupuncture (EA) at a select set of acupoints situated along meridians located over deep somatic nerves on the upper and lower extremities. Stimulation at these acupoints activates underlying sensory neural pathways that project to a number of regions in the central nervous system (CNS) that ultimately regulate autonomic outflow and hence cardiovascular function.
A long-loop pathway involving the hypothalamus, midbrain, and medulla underlies EA modulation of reflex increases in blood pressure (BP). Actions of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the supraspinal CNS underlie processing of the somatic input and adjustment of autonomic outflow during EA. Acupuncture also decreases elevated blood pressure through actions in the thoracic spinal cord. Reflexes that lower BP likewise are modulated by EA through its actions on sympathetic and parasympathetic nuclei in the medulla. The autonomic influence of acupuncture is slow in onset but prolonged in duration, typically lasting beyond the period of stimulation. Clinical studies suggest that acupuncture can be used to treat cardiac diseases, such as myocardial ischemia and hypertension, associated with overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system.
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