Can Acupuncture Improve Sleep Quality?

Ancient traditional medicine, modern day benefits. As an avid fan of science and research, I am patiently waiting for the day that modern science can justify the measurement of Qi. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) defines Qi, loosely, as the life energy (pronounced: chi).  Despite this, there are many promising studies that support the efficacy of acupuncture. Many of these studies are subjective, meaning they are based on what the patient says, ie survey scores. Other studies include objective results, meaning there are measurable outcomes, ie changes in weight, number of NSAIDs used per week, etc. Acupuncture studies frequently compare ‘true acupuncture’ to ‘sham acupuncture’. Sham acupuncture usually uses blunt needles, purposely not stimulating the Qi. Now that we have a better understanding of acupuncture research, lets discuss how it has been recently studied relating to sleep.

A 2018 study by Emory University and Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that acupuncture was helpful in alleviating sleep disorders in veterans with PTSD and brain injuries. The study compared true vs sham acupuncture in 60 veterans with an average age of 40yo with mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), PTSD, and insomnia before and after 10 acupuncture sessions. Measurements included the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) scores and actigraphy (wrist-band-like device that measure motor function). The group receiving true acupuncture had an improvement in sleep efficiency both subjectively and objectively (1). Yes, this is a highly specific population, but certainly a challenging one for healthcare providers where there is a level of physical trauma as well as mental-emotional trauma. If acupuncture helps with this population, then it very well may help other populations of sleep disharmonies.

Another study looked at menopausal insomnia, this time comparing true acupuncture with a specific point protocol to a benzodiazepine anti-anxiety pharmaceutical, alprazolam (Xanax). This study included 128 menopausal females in a Beijing hospital who received acupuncture 5 days consecutively followed by a two-day break for 2 months. Results were measured by the PSQI. The researchers found acupuncture to be slightly more effective than Xanax for menopausal insomnia. (2)

A similar study done by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and UPENN looked at breast cancer survivors with hot flashes and insomnia. True acupuncture/electroacupuncture was compared against gabapentin (Neurontin) and venlafaxine (Effexor). The researchers found acupuncture was better than the drugs in significantly improving sleep duration and sleep latency (time to fall asleep), as well as reducing hot flash frequency. The acupuncture group had no issues with side effects compared to the drug control group (dizzy, fatigue, dry mouth, constipation, headaches).

As an acupuncturist, I see insomnia cases daily, and they are all unique in their own way- anxiety, menopause, toxicity of news, etc. Most often, insomniacs respond very well to acupuncture.

Resources:

  1. Huang, W., Johnson, T., Kutner, N., Halpin, S., Weiss, P., Griffiths, P. and Bliwise, D., 2018. Acupuncture for treatment of persistent disturbed sleep: A randomized clinical trial in veterans with mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Annals of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, 61, p.e89.
  2. Li, O., and F. Wang. “Acupuncture at back-shu points of five zang, Geshu (BL 17) and Shenmen (HT 7) for the treatment of menopausal insomnia.” Zhongguo zhen jiu= Chinese acupuncture & moxibustion 38, no. 5 (2018): 4693.
  3. Garland, Sheila N., Sharon X. Xie, Qing Li, Christina Seluzicki, Coby Basal, and Jun J. Mao. “Comparative effectiveness of electro-acupuncture versus gabapentin for sleep disturbances in breast cancer survivors with hot flashes: a randomized trial.” Menopause 24, no. 5 (2017): 517-523.

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