In this edition of Research Roundup, we’ll examine how acupuncture can help with sleep issues. Dr. Rhoads mentioned that acupuncture could help in her last blog post, so let’s explore that a little further. This week’s article explores how effective acupuncture can be in treating insomnia, which is a common sleep issue for many people. It manifests as difficulties in getting to sleep or staying asleep. Sounds familiar. We’ve all experienced this at one time or another.
This article explores some interesting ways to evaluate how well acupuncture helps those with insomnia. What’s also fascinating about this article is the study design, or how the research was conducted. They compared one group of randomly chosen people who received acupuncture to a group that didn’t. Any differences in sleep quality would then be attributable to the acupuncture. This type of study is known as a randomized controlled trial and it represents one of the most common methods used in healthcare research. They also went a step further and compared one group of people receiving acupuncture using multiple acupoints to those receiving acupuncture at only a single point to see if that made any differences. Both groups receiving acupuncture, single-point or multiple points, were compared to the control group, who received acupuncture needles in areas that do not correspond to actual acupuncture points. These are referred to as “sham points”. No acupuncturist would needle these “sham points” in a real clinic environment. For those interested, the single acupoint chosen was Heart-7 and the multi-acupoints combination was Heart-7, Spleen-6, and Du-20 (listed as GV-20).
To understand how acupuncture could have made any difference, they chose to use a special form of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Most people are familiar with MRI for visualizing body structures such as the knee or the brain. The particular type of MRI chosen for the study was functional MRI, or fMRI. It allows the researchers to observe changes in actual brain activity before and after the acupuncture for all three groups. They also used two patient questionnaires (PSQI = Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and AIS = Athens Insomnia Scale) as well as polysomnography, which is better known as a sleep study. It measures brain waves, heart rate, and other factors to see your sleep patterns. Most acupuncture studies don’t evaluate these many changes, which makes this one unique.
So what did they find? This study showed that the people who received the acupuncture at multiple acupoints, similar to what Dr. Rhoads would choose in practice, provided better positive sleep changes, meaning that the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep would be improved. Those receiving acupuncture at a single acupoint did only slightly better overall than those who received sham acupuncture on the questionnaires. Interestingly, they also noted changes in brain activity, as seen on the fMRI studies, were different for those receiving multiple acupoints; more brain areas were regulated and, while this requires more studies, could indicate that increases in activity in certain brain areas could be associated with better sleep quality.
For more information on this article and sham acupuncture, please see a more in-depth analysis on my blog.