Everyday our hearts beat continuously to send 2,000 gallons of blood to all of our vital organs, allowing us to run, jump and think our way through our daily lives. Working around the clock nonstop, though, is a heavy job. If our hearts falter or need some help, modern medicine will suggest invasive dye tests, surgeries and pharmaceuticals to maintain it’s functioning. Dr. Michael Poon, Director of Advanced Cardiovascular Imaging at Stony Brook University Medical Center, champions a different alternative: Enhanced External Counter Pulsation (EECP) therapy.
Though the title might sound very technical, the methodology behind EECP is refreshingly simple. It is completely noninvasive treatment where patients struggling with coronary heart disease receive a carefully orchestrated external manipulation of their body and lessen the workflow of the beating heart.
How can the simple circulation of blood have such a drastic effect on the heart? Dr. Poon is prepared with 25 years’ worth of research experience to tackle that question. “It’s very interesting, if you look at the most common diseases that people face — coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, obesity — you think of something common to all these disease processes,” he said. “One of the common pathways I see is insufficient blood flow.”
As our bodies age, our blood vessels and arteries naturally become stiffer, similar to the arthritis of the joints. To compensate for a loss of flexibility in the blood vessels, the heart begins to pump harder to maintain the same amount of blood flow throughout the body. Dr. Poon explains, “When your heart and blood vessels are not capable of delivering the nutrients of the blood to an organ, you start having various ailments like dementia, heart disease, diabetes and all other complications of vascular disease.”
The revolutionary aspect of EECP is how it works in tandem with the body’s natural heartbeat. Patients are invited to relax on a bed as pneumatic cuffs, similar to those used in blood pressure tests, are wrapped around the calves, lower thighs and upper thighs/buttocks. When the heart hits its resting period, the cuffs inflate sending a surge of nourishing blood back toward the heart to increase the blood flow to the heart as it prepares for its next pump where the cuffs deflate quickly prompting the blood to circulate more efficiently throughout the body.
Dr. Poon is confident of the benefits of this treatment, always advising his patients “to relax and let the machine do the work for you. Put yourself in your dream world and let it rejuvenate you.” The dream-come-true magic of EECP is that it is the only form of exercise for the heart that strengthens it without taxing it in the process.
“All the other exercise we do is asking the heart to do more for less because the heart has to pump faster and harder to meet the demand of vigorous exercise without any direct benefit to its own blood flow. Eventually, you had to stop due to fatigue and energy exhaustion to the heart and the rest of your body,” said Dr. Poon. “With EECP, it pumps while the heart is relaxing, which is the most important period of time of the heart pumping cycle. It allows the heart to get more blood, grow new blood vessels and allows the endothelium, the delicate and protective layer of the blood vessels to get exercise, release more nitric oxide and dilate which allows more blood to pass through.”
Dr. Poon can reassure any doubtful minds that EECP is more than just a seemingly meditative message treatment. “I don’t believe in infomercials. I believe in scientific data. No hocus pocus, show me the data.”
The EECP therapy is based on many years of good and sound research of its effect on the endothelium. “This delicate layer is responsible for some of the processes that are crucial to many pathologic states,” Dr. Poon explained. Endothelial cells function as a barrier for passing potentially harmful material through the blood as well as a blood-clotting and inflammatory agents and is part of the restorative team to repair organs.
With all of the knowledge widely available in the medical community, Dr. Poon is amazed by the reality that so many basic cardiac procedures inflict as much harm as benefit. One of the most basic tests given to coronary patients, a cardiac angiogram, snakes a catheter up through the groin into the aorta in order to inject a readable dye. In the process of reaching the aorta, it directly rubs against the endothelium. “Because of that [invasive practice] I have been a champion for non-invasive ways of looking at the human coronary arteries,” Dr. Poon said. “I am an expert in the use of cardiac CT in the evaluation of coronary disease to see how I can reverse the plaque buildup using the EECP without taking pills.”
Dr. Poon admits that when he was introduced to EECP he was skeptical of its claims. “At first when I saw EECP I thought, ‘this isn’t real.’ Then the more I looked at it and studied it, I saw that this is important and it’s no different from the Intra-Aoric Balloon pump,” he said. “It’s a procedure being used throughout the world in the critical care unit to save people from dying of congestive heart failure. It’s basically an invasive form of EECP.”
Dr. Poon has ample reason to trust in EECP given that the machine is the brainchild of Simon Srybnik, the successful machinist inventor and entrepreneur. Srybnik is the one who witnessed external, counter-pulsation therapy being utilized in China during the mid-twentieth century. When faced with the reality of a second surgery to resolve his own blocked artery, Srybnik created the EECP machine to save his life.
Dr. Poon was recruited by Srybnik when the young doctor was also searching for an answer on how to improve the vascular condition. “He was the one who introduced me to EECP —and I was struggling. I was working on both ends and then he gave me the technology to bridge the gap. In scientific research, so much work is done on the molecular level and the clinical level and then there’s nothing in between,” Dr. Poon stated. “The knowledge doesn’t do us any good unless you have a way of bridging those molecular gaps of information into clinical everyday practice. EECP is just the beginning of providing a functional understanding of all the molecular changes.”
At the age of 96, Srybnik is a living testament to the power of EECP and is, as Dr. Poon affectionately calls him, a “poster child” for the treatment. These two men are now ready to turn back the clock on coronary disease and share vascular wellness with the world.
Dr. Poon also has evidence on the benefits of EECP to maintain whole body wellness and for treating illnesses besides coronary ailments. He explains one circumstance of an 80 year old patient who received radiation therapy to his bowels. Consequently, he suffered a narrowing of the blood vessels to the gut. This simple change is circulation transformed the joy of a meal into a challenging discomfort. Dr. Poon described how his patient regularly experienced terrible stomachaches after eating due to the reduced blood flow.
“He was living a horrible experience every time he ate,” he acknowledged. Then he introduced the patient to EECP. “Now, he’s living again without having the constant belly pain following a meal.”
EECP is restoring the quality of life to many patients who were at the end of their ropes in terms of cardiovascular care and it is now being considered as a complimentary treatment for a wide array of other illnesses. Dr. Poon shared, “I think if you give me a year or so, I’ll be able to make some big announcements based on my preliminary experience. I think it’s very, very promising.”