For people who suffer from heart disease, the road to recovery can involve a number of changes in their lifestyle. In many cases, this includes a modified diet and some level of activity to help strengthen the heart. However, patients should only partake in exercise under the strict guidance of their doctor, for too much exertion can place undue stress on the heart.

Now, researchers have found that acupuncture can help heart disease patients to better tolerate exercise. While acupuncture does not seem to aid the heart's ability to pump, it appears to have an effect on the strength of the skeletal muscles. Consequently, stamina improves and allowable walking distances thereby increase.

The findings, published in the journal Heart, come from a study that looked at heart disease patients who had been stabilized with conventional treatments. The patients were divided into two groups: one who took part in 10 acupuncture sessions and a control group who received simulated needle pricks (placebo) that did not break the skin. The acupuncture in question targeted acupuncture points that, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), are believed to increase general strength.

What the researchers found was that after the TCM therapy, the acupuncture group was able to cover a greater walking distance than the control (placebo) group. The test group subjects were also able to recover more quickly and reported feeling less exhaustion. Tests indicated, however, that the working capacity of their hearts had not changed.

It is known in medical circles that when a patient suffers from heart disease, their ability to endure exercise is often independent of their heart's ability to pump. Fatigue seems to instead stem from the functioning of the muscles. More specifically, inflammation signals that activate certain receptors are elevated in heart disease patients make the muscle tired. As a result, the body's muscles can no longer endure work loads.

Acupuncture, in turn, appears to decrease the level of a specific messenger, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha), which can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, strength, and function.

Chronic weakness of the heart is one of the most prevalent diseases to affect people, and one of the leading causes of death worldwide. One of the hallmarks of the disease is a significant reduction in work capacity, manifested by a shortness of breath and fatigue that results from exercise.

Previously, it was assumed that the problems with endurance were rooted in the weakening of the heart muscles, but now doctors are beginning to understand that the problem is much more complex than that and includes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system. The goal of acupuncture is to restore that balance.

If you have questions or concerns about heart disease, speak with your doctor. For more information about acupuncture, visit Medline, a service of the National Library of Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).