It may be one of the most bizarre-looking medical treatments around, but enhanced external counterpulsation (EECP) is having unusual success in treating patients with angina, a painful condition caused when the heart can't get enough oxygen.
"Almost three-fourths of these patients are benefited in some way or form. And one-third, in my experience, are totally cured as far as the angina is concerned," said Dr. Rohit Arora of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
Powerful cuffs on the legs, like those on a blood pressure meter, are timed to contract between heartbeats. This pressure drives blood from the legs back into the coronary arteries.
It is believed that the extra pressure in the arteries causes new blood vessels, called collaterals, to grow in the heart muscle increasing the supply of oxygen.
Angina can be a debilitating condition. In some cases, even a short walk between the bedroom and the bathroom can evoke excruciating pain and shortness of breath. Even the most popular treatments, drugs, coronary bypass surgery and angioplasty, often don't relieve the symptoms.
Anthony Ambrozio, who was left with angina after a quadruple bypass six years ago, noticed the difference almost immediately.
"I walk up the stairs now without any problem. I mean, no problem. I used to stop half way and take deep breaths. Now it's much better," says Ambrozio.
The initial EECP studies a year ago raised questions about whether the effects would last. Dr. Arora now has some early answers.
"The beneficial effect, relief of chest pain, is sustained even up to one year of follow up," reports Dr. Arora.
Although acceptance has been slow, and only a handful of hospitals are using EECP treatment, this primitive-looking concept is finding a place in today's high tech medicine.
Reported by John Roberts