Healing the Heart: Integrating Complementary Therapies and Healing Practices Into the Care of Cardiovascular Patients

Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, Mariah Snyder, PhD, RN


Prog Cardiovasc Nurs. 2002;17(2) 

In This Article

Use of CAM Therapies with Cardiovascular Patients

Two studies have focused specifically on use of CAM therapies by patients with cardiovascular disease. Whitworth et al.[15] reported that 63% of the patients admitted to the cardiac surgery service at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center had used at least one complementary therapy before or after their hospitalization. The most commonly reported therapy was prayer (51%), followed by vitamin supplementation (37%), chiropractic (26%), and massage (20%). Only 14% of patients surveyed indicated that they did not feel that complementary approaches to healing were beneficial (i.e., help fight illness). Ai et al.[16] completed a survey of 151 patients 1 year following coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The survey examined both the use of complementary therapies post-CABG surgery and the relationship of use to psychological recovery, as measured by patient report. Eighty-five percent of patients used complementary therapies. Prayer was the most frequently reported therapy used (67.5%), followed by exercise (45.7%) and lifestyle modification (9.9%). Fewer than 5% of patients reported using chiropractic, self-help groups, megavitamin therapy, massage, weight loss programs, clergy visits, imagery, relaxation techniques, energy healing, biofeedback, homeopathy, acupuncture, or folk remedies. Of significance was the finding that patients who used complementary therapies, particularly prayer and exercise, had better psychological recovery (less depression or general distress).

Imagery is the use of the imagination to stimulate one or all of the senses. It is incorporated within many relaxation techniques, including hypnosis, biofeedback, autogenic training, and progressive muscle relaxation. Imagery is used extensively within the shamanic healing rituals that are part of many culturally based healing traditions. As summarized in a review article on use of mind-body therapies in the treatment of cardiovascular disease,[17] both laboratory studies and clinical trials have demonstrated that these techniques are effective in reducing stress, restructuring behaviors, and reducing heart rate reactivity, blood pressure, and resting heart rate. Two studies will be highlighted that focus on practical applications of imagery/hypnosis in the care of cardiovascular patients.

Lang et al.[18] examined the use of a self-hypnotic relaxation technique during interventional radiologic procedures. Compared to a control group, patients who were trained in using a self-hypnotic relaxation technique used fewer drugs, reported less pain, and had fewer episodes of oxygen desaturation and hemodynamic instability requiring interruptions of their procedures. Self-hypnosis was also the intervention used in a prospective, randomized trial of patients undergoing CABG surgery.[19] Patients who were taught self-hypnosis prior to surgery experienced less pain, required fewer pain medications, and were significantly more relaxed.

In the late 1960s, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson[20] studied practitioners of transcendental meditation. He found that meditation evokes a state of the autonomic nervous system that is correlated with a reduction in stress reactivity, as measured by lowering of the heart rate, blood pressure, pulse rate, respiration rate, and levels of the stress hormone plasma cortisol. Over time, Benson described this state as the "relaxation response" -- a state that evokes a bodily calm, as opposed to the fight or flight response. Leserman et al.[21] found that in patients undergoing cardiac surgery, the relaxation response resulted in a lower incidence of postoperative supraventricular tachycardia and a patient-reported decrease in tension and anger. Meditation has also been reported to be useful in patients exhibiting signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease. Zamarra et al.[22] found a reduction in ischemia and improved exercise tolerance in patients who had meditated for 8 months, compared to a control group. In a randomized, controlled clinical trial evaluating the effects of transcendental meditation on hypertensive African Americans, Castillo-Richmond et al.[23] found that transcendental meditation was associated with reduced carotid atherosclerosis.

Yoga is an East Indian practice that includes gentle stretching exercises, breath control, and meditation. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to unite. The practice of yoga has been documented to have numerous beneficial cardiovascular effects. Pandya and Vyas[24] have summarized physiologic changes associated with yoga training. These changes include decreased sympathetic tone, improved control of sympathetic function, decreased peripheral vascular resistance, improved cardiac stroke output, reduction in blood pressure, reduced heart rate, and improved cardiovascular endurance. In a feasibility study in patients undergoing interventional cardiology procedures, Appels et al.[25] found that breathing exercise therapy after percutaneous transluminal angioplasty reduced exhaustion, hostility, and apprehension. Following yoga training, improvements in cardiovascular function (increased endurance and aerobic power) have been documented.[26]

Tai chi chaun (TCC), or tai chi, is a centuries-old Chinese practice that has evolved from a martial arts form. Hong et al.[27] describe TCC as a series of individual movements, linked together in a continuous manner, that flow smoothly from one movement to another. Deep breathing and mental concentration are also incorporated into TCC. There are numerous forms of TCC involving distinctive postures and movement sequences, although they all follow the same basic principles. TCC is especially appropriate for older adults, as the movements are slow and controlled and do not involve impact. A study by Hong et al.[27] evaluated the impact of long-term TCC practice on cardiovascular fitness of adults over the age of 65. Compared to a control group, adults who practiced TCC for over 10 years had improved balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.

Oxman et al.[28] conducted a study to evaluate the impact of religion and religious beliefs on patient outcomes following cardiac surgery. They found that lack of participation in groups and absence of strength and comfort in religion were independently related to risk of death during the 6-month period following cardiac surgery in 232 patients aged 55 and older. Patients who received no comfort from religion were over three times more likely to die after heart surgery.

Research has also been conducted on the impact of intercessory prayer on patient outcomes. Byrd[29] investigated the effects of intercessory prayer for 383 patients admitted to the coronary care unit (ccu) of san francisco general hospital in a randomized, controlled clinical trial. Patients who were prayed for were compared with a control group. Patients in the treatment group were less likely to require antibiotics and less likely to develop pulmonary edema, and fewer patients in the prayed-for group died (although this difference was not statistically significant). When the study was published in 1988, it was quite controversial. Questions were raised about the rigor of the methodology as well as the feasibility and plausibility of prayer research.

Harris et al.[30] conducted a follow-up trial in 990 patients admitted to a CCU in an attempt to determine whether remote intercessory prayer would impact hospitalized cardiac patients. The outcome measure was a CCU score based on the patient's medical course from admission to hospital discharge. While lengths of CCU and hospital stays were not different, intercessory prayer was associated with lower (better) CCU course scores. The investigators concluded that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care.

Several studies have focused on the use of music to reduce stress in cardiovascular or critically ill patients. Guzzetta,[31] in a randomized, controlled trial of patients in a CCU, found that patients assigned to music therapy or a relaxation intervention exhibited fewer physiologic indicators of stress and had a lower incidence of cardiac complications than patients in a control group. Bolwerk[32] also found that music may reduce anxiety in CCU patients.

Exercise has long been understood to be the core of any cardiac rehabilitation program. A recent Cochrane systematic review[33] examined the effect on patient outcomes of exercise alone or exercise within a comprehensive cardiac rehabilitation program. Meta-analysis of studies involving over 8000 patients confirmed that exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation is effective in reducing cardiac deaths. It was not clear from this review whether exercise alone or a comprehensive intervention is more beneficial.

The importance of reducing dietary fat was also affirmed in a Cochrane systematic review conducted by Hooper et al.[34] Twenty-seven studies involving 30,901 person-years were used to assess the effect of reduction or modification of dietary fats on total and cardiovascular morbidity. There was no significant effect from the dietary changes on total mortality, but there was a significant effect on the rate of cardiovascular events. The investigators concluded that patients with any risk of cardiovascular disease should continue to include permanent reduction of dietary saturated fat and partial replacement of unsaturated fat into their lifestyle regimen.

Data are less clear on the role of natural therapies in reducing cholesterol levels and subsequent heart disease. Heber[35] notes that antioxidants, phytosterols, garlic, niacin, and Cholestin-3 are all examples of therapies currently being investigated that work best in conjunction with a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, stress reduction, and exercise. While natural alternatives may be found to be safe and less expensive than prescription cholesterol-lowering drugs for the majority of healthy and at-risk individuals, Heber acknowledges that more research is needed and that potent prescription drugs may well be indicated for patients with advanced heart disease.

One recent study[36] on garlic demonstrated promising results. A 4-year clinical trial in 152 patients with advanced arteriosclerotic plaque showed that garlic supplementation reduced the increase in atherosclerotic plaque by 6%-18% and in some patients caused a slight reduction in plaque volume. This study and others suggest that nutritional supplements may have an important role in both preventing and treating heart disease.