Could acupuncture be a safe and effective way to treat insomnia? Several recent studies have shown positive results. That’s very good news for those who occasionally toss and turn at night as well as people with chronic sleeplessness.
The Problem of Insomnia
It’s estimated that 40 percent of all Americans suffer from some degree of insomnia. For many, it takes too long to fall asleep. Others can’t stay asleep. Some wake up too early in the morning, while others fail to feel rested even after solid sleep.
Few people think of insomnia as a dangerous condition, but the facts are eye-opening:
- Chronic insomnia can lead to physical problems and mental disorders.
- Insomniacs have far greater risk for substance abuse than people who sleep well.
- 40-60 percent of insomnia sufferers are also clinically depressed.
- Sleeplessness is associated with daytime irritability, delayed reactions, poor concentration, memory loss and headaches.
- Insomnia is often associated with vehicle crashes and home or workplace accidents.
Why Not Just Take Sleeping Pills?
Hypnotic sedatives come with many risks and negative side effects. Not only can they become addictive, but they account for over 30,000 emergency room visits each year. Accidental overdose is a grave possibility, especially if sleep aids are mixed with alcohol and other drugs. A brand new study found that people who take sleeping pills even occasionally have a four times greater mortality rate than those who don’t.
The risks may not be worth it: Most patients who discontinue sleeping pills report that their insomnia is worse than it was to begin with.
Acupuncture is gaining momentum as a realistic, effective option for treating sleep disorders.
What Is Acupuncture?
Ancient hieroglyphics show that acupuncture was already being practiced during the Shang Dynasty, 1600-1100 B.C. It is still a key element of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
TCM purists describe acupuncture as a way to balance the life force qi, a flow of energy through 14 pathways in the body. Ultra thin needles are inserted into strategic points for stimulating the central nervous system. Acting as conductors, they reroute energy to sources of pain. Needle placement points may be close to painful spots or fairly far away.
The overall goal in Chinese medicine conforms to the yin and yang philosophy: eliminate pathogens and reinforce health. For centuries, Eastern doctors have stood by acupuncture’s ability to meet that goal. In theory and in practice, it works.
In Western medicine, ongoing research tries to explain acupuncture scientifically. Experiments have verified biological reactions to acupuncture, such as increased blood flow and changes in immune function. There is strong evidence that stimulating the central nervous system sparks the release endorphins and opioid peptides, the brain’s natural painkillers.
In two large-scale, separate studies, acupuncture relieved or shortened tension headaches. The ancient practice made headlines when two celebrities, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, credited acupuncture with enabling them to overcome infertility problems.
Scoffers chalk up its benefits to a placebo effect, but 3 million Americans swear by acupuncture for problems as diverse as:
- Dental Pain
- Tension headaches or migraines
- Lower back or neck pain
- Labor pain
- Menstrual cramps
- Nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Weight loss
Does It Work for Insomnia?
Experiments testing acupuncture for insomnia relief have had promising results.
A 2009 study compared insomniac subjects who had acupuncture, acupuncture combined with other treatments, no treatment, placebos and mainstream medical remedies. The trial measured quality and duration of sleep.
Patients who underwent acupuncture fared much better than the others. They showed significant improvement in sleeping through the night and waking up rested.
Some scientists theorize that acupuncture increases y-amino butyric acid, which plays a role in duration and quality of sleep. It may also reset circadian rhythm, an internal “clock” that regulates functions like sleep, body temperature and hormone production. Circadian rhythm can be disrupted by menstrual cycles, working odd hours or traveling between time zones.
Several clinical studies showed surprising benefits for auricular acupuncture. Needles placed along specific points in the ear helped the subjects fall asleep faster and sleep through the night. Another method, acupressure, helped elderly people sleep better. Acupressure uses the same placement points, but stimulating is done by the fingertips. This method may also treat sleep apnea.
Proponents are also excited about another finding. Acupuncture appears to signal the brain to produce more melatonin and serotonin when supplies run low. These two hormones play a role in relaxation and drowsiness.
Choosing an Acupuncturist
Check reliable sources to make sure the practitioner is well-trained, accredited and experienced. He or she is required to pass the exam of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. The American Academy of Medicinal Acupuncture and Acupuncture Today Magazine list qualified practitioners all over the country.
If possible, schedule a brief interview in person or by telephone. State your expectations and ask the acupuncturist what methods he might use to help you. The quality of your relationship could have direct bearing on results, so it’s important to establish trust. Some patients point to compatible belief systems or backgrounds as enhancing their experiences.
Go over the costs. The initial visit is the longest, an hour or more, and the most expensive. For a single complaint, practitioners usually schedule six to eight subsequent visits. This may vary depending on the severity of the problem and overall health condition. Treatments usually last around 30-40 minutes.
The first consultation could range in price from $75-120 and routine visits from $50-80 apiece. Many practitioners offer discounts for booking multiple appointments or paying in advance. Certain insurance plans cover acupuncture, so be sure to ask about accepted providers when you schedule.
What to Expect
At the first session, the clinician will spend time getting to know your problem. He’ll evaluate your pulse for strength of blood flow and note the quality of facial color. He’ll also examine your tongue for shape, color and coating. This exam gives him important clues for needle placement and assures that you’re a good candidate for acupuncture.
Depending on which needle sites he wants to access, you may be asked to disrobe or partially undress; a gown or robe will be provided. As you lie on a padded table, the clinician will situate the needles where he wants them. Remember, they won’t necessarily be placed on or close to sources of pain.
Insertion usually takes about 20 minutes. You may feel very mild pain or tingling when the needles reach correct depth. The practitioner may twirl or gently manipulate the needles for best effect. He may even apply light electrical impulses. The needles typically stay in place for 10-20 minutes. Most acupuncturists blend music and aromatherapy into treatment, and many suggest herbal supplements to boost effects.
Acupuncture is relaxing for some and energizing for others. Some people respond very favorably, whereas others report no benefit at all. You should give it a few visits before deciding if it’s right for you. Keeping a sleep diary during your treatment may help you keep track of changes or improvements.
Acupuncture has very few side effects for healthy people, but not everyone is a good candidate. You shouldn’t try acupuncture if:
- You have a bleeding disorder or take blood-thinners like Coumadin
- You have a pacemaker, due to electrical impulses potentially interfering with the mechanism
- You are pregnant, due to the possibility of stimulating labor and premature delivery
Serious problems or injuries during acupuncture are extremely rare when the provider is licensed and competent. Very minor bleeding, tenderness or bruising at the needle sites is nothing to worry about.
Verifying certification and references, however, shouldn’t be taken lightly. Using an unlicensed acupuncturist could result in infection or serious disease from reused or unsterilized needles. Injury to blood vessels, the gallbladder, lungs or other organs is possible if the provider is untrained.
It’s Worth a Try
After all these centuries, acupuncture’s usefulness is still debated.
Detractors say it only works because fans of the procedure believe in it and want it to work. Many experiments have provided biological evidence that acupuncture is effective, while others have had mixed, inconclusive or poor results. More systematic research is needed to prove or disprove its medical value.
For insomnia, it’s been most effective when begun in the early stages. Patients report better results when blending it with one or two other interventions, such as yoga, deep relaxation methods or homeopathic remedies. Eating the right foods and controlling the sleep environment can also keep insomnia at bay. In studies, comprehensive approaches that integrated acupuncture had up to 90 percent success rates.
Just about everyone agrees that acupuncture is worth a try. Unlike sleeping pills, it has few risks or side effects—and becoming addicted wouldn’t be such a bad thing.