Acupuncture and Sleep

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Perhaps as old as three millennia, acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine practice that’s practiced in both Eastern and Western cultures as a way of relieving pain and nausea. Acupuncture is often used as a natural treatment for a host of disorders that can interfere with sleep or cause insomnia, such as depression and anxiety.

Almost 7 percent of Americans have tried acupuncture at least once, and nearly a quarter of those have seen an acupuncturist within the last year, according to the latest numbers from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture involves the insertion of sterile, thin needles into specific parts of the body, with the goal of treating pain by stimulating various nerves and muscles.

Acupuncture relieves discomfort and pain associated with many physical conditions, most commonly:

  • Nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy
  • Pain in the lower back, neck, or dental regions
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Menstrual cramps and labor pain

Acupuncture is also often used to alleviate symptoms of insomnia, sleep apnea, and feelings of stress and anxiety which can interfere with sleep.

Acupuncture acupoints qi pathways meridiansIn traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture employs needles to help balance your flow of qi  (or chi) throughout your body. Needles are strategically placed in specific points along 14 meridians – or qi pathways – in your body in order to rebalance your energy flow. When qi gets stuck, it can cause pain, discomfort, reduced bodily function, or illness. Strategic placement of the needles releases the blockage and allows energy to flow as your body’s natural healing process kicks in.

Western practitioners rely on acupuncture as a way to naturally stimulate your body’s pain relief functions and increase your blood flow, by stimulating nerves, muscles and tissue at these specific pressure points, which are known as acupoints.

While many Western doctors remain skeptical of acupuncture’s ability to treat specific diseases, it is recognized by the National Institutes of Health as a viable option for general pain treatment.

What happens during an acupuncture appointment?

An initial consultation may take up to 1 hour, followed by subsequent appointments of about 30 minutes. Depending on what condition the individual is seeking treatment for, anywhere from 6 to 8 appointments is average.

During the session, the patient lies down on a table, similar to a massage. The acupuncturist will insert needles at pressure points which may or may not be close to where the patient is actually experiencing the pain or discomfort. Anywhere between 5 to 20 needles are typical for use during a single treatment. The acupuncturist may move, twirl, heat, or apply electric pulses to the needles, depending on your symptoms. The needles are very thin so most individuals experience little to no discomfort or just a slight ache. The patient simply lies still while the needles remain in places for up to 20 minutes, at which point the acupuncturist will painlessly remove them.

Benefits of acupuncture

Besides alleviating symptoms associated with the physical condition for which one sought out treatment, advocates of acupuncture tout the many additional benefits of regular treatment, reduced allergies, including:

  • More restful sleep
  • Higher energy
  • Increased mental clarity
  • Better digestion
  • Lower stress levels and reduced anxiety
  • Reduced allergies
  • Improved fertility
  • Fewer headaches

Immediately after an acupuncture session, many individuals report a blissful, relaxed or even dazed feeling referred to as “acu land.” Once this subsides, individuals start to experience the benefits listed above within hours, days, or weeks following the treatment.

Acupuncture remains a popular holistic treatment because it effectively relieves pain and discomfort, without many of the dependency issues or side effects posed by other therapies and medication.

Negative side effects of acupuncture

While acupuncture is relatively low-risk, there are some side effects to be aware of, including fatigue, muscle soreness, and lightheadedness.

Some individuals report worse symptoms when they begin acupuncture treatments. Whether this is due to heightened sensitivity from acupuncture, or just your body reacting to the change, symptoms may initially worsen before they get better. If symptoms continue to worsen, consult your doctor about whether you should continue acupuncture or consider another course of treatment.

Fatigue

While most people feel increased energy after coming out of “acu land,” there are some who feel greater fatigue following an acupuncture session. This fatigue may last as long as the rest of the day. You can expect to experience the benefits of acupuncture, especially higher energy levels, the following day. If you feel fatigue immediately after an acupuncture session, take it easy and allow yourself to rest.

Muscle soreness and bruising

Acupuncture and sleepSome individuals may experience muscle soreness at insertion points, but this typically goes away within 24 hours, if it even occurs at all. 

Some individuals also report bruising at the needle insertion points. While bruises will last longer than muscle soreness, they’re not anything to be concerned about and will also go away with time.

Muscle twitching and spasms may also accompany an acupuncture treatment. Small twitching is nothing to worry about. Full or acute muscle spasm, on the other hand, should be immediately reported to your acupuncturist.

Other side effects

Fainting and lightheadedness may occur if you sit or stand up too quickly after the session, or don’t eat properly beforehand.

Similar to massage, acupuncture often relieves emotional stress and baggage we carry within the body, so it’s not uncommon for individuals to feel sensitive or even cry during or after a session.

Acupuncture is low risk, and organ injury or infection is extremely rare when practiced by a licensed and experienced acupuncturist.

However, individuals with the following conditions should avoid acupuncture:

  • Pregnant women, because it can induce labor;
  • Individuals with bleeding disorders or who take blood thinners, because they are at increased risk of bruising or bleeding from the needles; and
  • Individuals with a pacemaker, because if your acupuncturist applies electrical pulses to the needles, it can interfere with the functioning of your pacemaker.

Acupuncture vs. acupressure

Acupressure is based on the same philosophy and uses the same meridians as acupuncture, but with the use of finger pressure instead of needles to stimulate acupoints and re-balance energy flow.

Try your own acupressure treatment at home to alleviate insomnia by applying pressure and massaging the following spots for 2 to 3 minutes:

  • The tender, fleshy spot between your big toe and second toe
  • The crease of your wrist on the pinky side, with your palm facing up
  • The fleshy area below your inner ankle bone

Acupuncture for insomnia

Multiple studies have demonstrated acupuncture to be an effective treatment for insomnia. Acupuncture lessens anxiety, stimulates melatonin production, induces sleep onset, and reduce sleep disruption and arousal during the night. All of these effects amount to an overall increase in total sleep time. In some instances, acupuncture is used as a treatment not for insomnia itself, but for pain from other physical conditions that in turn make it difficult to fall asleep at night.

In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture addresses the following qi-related issues that cause insomnia:

Sleep issue treated by acupunctureClassic Chinese explanation
Difficulty falling asleep (sleep onset insomnia)Yang qi is blocked from yin qi, so the body is unable to relax completely
Interrupted sleep, waking during the nightHeat is trapped in the body
Waking up too earlyYin energy is blocked in the kidneys
Vivid nightmaresToo much energy in the heart, or not enough in the liver
Extreme insomniaBlood issues in the spleen or liver

By applying needles to various acupoints, acupuncture activates your parasympathetic system, the part of your nervous system that encourages your body to rest and digest. Below is a list of the acupoints that provide relief for insomnia and other sleep-related issues.

AcupointLocationWhat it does
B38: “Vital Diaphragm”Between the shoulder and the spine at heart levelReduces feelings that hinder sleep, such as stress, anxiety, fear, and grief. Also helps treat cough and respiratory issues.
P6: Pericardium 6 / “Inner Gate”On the center of the forearm below the wristRelieves nausea, vomiting, indigestion, anxiety, palpitations, chest/cardiac congestion and pain, depression, asthma, cough, vertigo, and irritable mood.
H7: Heart 7 / “Spirit Gate”On the inner side of the wrist crease along the line of the pinkyReduces anxiety, cold sweats, and excited emotions that cause insomnia. Also helps with cardiac and chest pain or palpitations, epilepsy, and irritable mood.
B10: Urinary Bladder 10 / “Celestial Pillar”On the back of the neck below the base of the skullRelaxes and clears the mind, reducing exhaustion and stress-related insomnia. Also helps with headaches, shoulder and back pain, neck pain, vertigo, sore throat, nasal congestion, and skin issues
GV16: Governing Vessel 16 / “Wind Mansion”In the center of the back of the head, in the hollow below the base of the skullReduces stress, fear, and manic and suicidal thoughts. Also helps with earaches, headaches, sore throat, bloody noses, eye issues, asthma, spinal cord problems, and chest congestion.
GB20: Gall Bladder 20 / “Gates of Consciousness”Below the base of the skull between the two vertical neck musclesRelieves migraines, headaches, fatigue, cold and flu symptoms, and blurred vision.
GV24.5: Governing Vessel 24.5 / “Third Eye Point”Directly between the eyebrows where the nose meets the foreheadHelps with sleep apnea, and calms racing thoughts that inhibit sleep. Relaxes the nervous system, alleviating anxiety and emotions of panic, fear, and depression. Also helps with headaches, nosebleeds, vertigo, epilepsy, dental pain.
CV17: Conception Vessel 17 / “Sea of Tranquility”In the center of the breast boneRelieves anxiety and nerve-induced insomnia. Also helps with chest congestion, coughs, asthma, palpitations and breast problems. Works best in combination with GV24.5.
K6: Kidney 6 / “Shining Sea”On the inside of the ankle boneReduces insomnia and anxiety. Also helps with hypertension, digestion problems, sore throat, menstrual issues, epilepsy, and eye issues.
B62: Urinary Bladder 62 / “Extending Vessel”On the outside of the ankleboneAlleviates lower back pain, neck pain, headaches, nerves, and epilepsy. Works best in combination with K6.

There are also specific meridians (qi pathways) tied to sleep, which include:

MeridianEmotion addressedRelated sleep issue
Heart meridianAnxietySleep onset and sleep-maintenance insomnia
Spleen meridianWorryWaking up at a similar time every night
Liver meridianAnger and stressWaking up in the first half of the night
Lung meridianGriefWaking up in the second half of the night

Acupuncture and sleep apnea

Sleep apnea describes sleep-disordered breathing where an individual stops breathing during sleep, whether due to a blocked airway caused by obesity, a brain condition, or physical abnormality. Sleep apnea causes snoring and may cause the person to gasp or choke, rousing them from sleep during the night.

Acupuncture assists individuals with sleep apnea by stimulating the muscles and tissues of their airways, so they’re stronger and less likely to collapse during sleep, causing the apnea. In particular, auriculotherapy acupoint pressure can alleviate symptoms of sleep apnea by stimulating muscles around the ear as well.

One recent study of 362 individuals has shown acupuncture to be just as good – or better – than CPAP machines or chin devices. This may come as welcome relief for individuals who have partners or are themselves roused by the noise of the machine. However, this is only one study, and additional studies have yet to replicate the results.

Acupuncture for sleep apnea focuses on strengthening the tongue muscle so as to prevent it from subsiding and blocking the airway during sleep. A ten-week treatment program in a Brazilian study reported strengthening patient’s tongues by 3 to 4 times and reducing apnea-related symptoms by half.

Preparing for an acupuncture appointment

While acupuncture is a low-risk procedure, there are some best practices you can follow to ensure your appointment goes as smoothly as possible:

1. Seek out a professional acupuncturist.

Ask your doctor and friends for referrals to an acupuncturist or find one through the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and AcuFinder.com directories. Ensure they are certified by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists.

2. Clear out the rest of your day.

Schedule your appointment on a day free of other obligations. This is especially important for your first appointment. Not having to worry about rushing to other appointments or getting errands done will reduce your stress and give you time to recuperate in case you feel fatigue after the session.

3. Don’t come on an empty stomach.

Eat no later than two hours before your appointment, but do ensure you eat something. Otherwise, you can feel light-headed or fatigued during or after the session.

4. Avoid caffeine and alcohol on the day of your appointment.

Caffeine is a stimulant and can counteract the effects of acupuncture, which is designed to relax you.

Spiritually, acupuncture aims to bring you more in tune with your body and personal awareness. Alcohol, which impairs your senses, interferes with that process.

5. Wear loose and comfortable clothing.

In a private session, your acupuncturist will likely provide you with an open gown to wear so they have access to necessary areas, but in most group sessions, acupuncture is performed with the clothes on. You’ll want to wear clothing that allows your acupuncturist easy access to various pressure points where they’ll place the needles.

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