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Acupuncture for Insomnia: Does it Work?

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Acupuncture has largely been dismissed as pseudoscience by Western medicine.

But recently, there’s been research that shows that it may be able to produce credible health improvements for certain conditions, including insomnia.

I’m going to walk you through that research, most of which has been completed in the last decade.

Research About the Use of Acupuncture for Insomnia

A 2015 systematic review looked at 30 acupuncture studies that included 2363 subjects in total (1).

All of these studies compared acupuncture to either a control group or placebo.

Overall, acupuncture produced an improvement in PSQI score of 2.76 points, which is a fairly significant improvement.

Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) is one of the most common ways to score the risk of insomnia. For reference, a good sleeper has a score of 5 or less, so a difference of nearly 3 points is quite large.

If you’d like to get your own PSQI score, use our free online PSQI calculator.

Limitations of Acupuncture Research

The authors of the systematic review that we looked at above note a few big limitations of current research:

  • Most studies were at risk of bias
  • There was significant heterogeneity in the selected studies (i.e. significant variance in results)

An even more recent meta-study found a similar result (2):

Most of the reviews included suggested that the acupuncture group was more effective than the control group in the treatment of insomnia, but the methodological quality of most of the studies and the quality of evidence were low.

This isn’t surprising since acupuncture has been regarded as pseudoscience (even now still), so there isn’t a lot of appeal for top quality researchers to look at its effect on insomnia.

SummaryResearch does suggest that acupuncture can produce a significant positive result in sleep quality for many people with insomnia. However, the level of evidence is still in question, so further studies will be needed to quantify the usefulness of acupuncture as a treatment method.

Acupuncture vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy that’s modified for patients with insomnia (CBT-i) is the gold standard for insomnia treatment.

It’s highly effective in almost everyone with very little chance of adverse effects.

In 2019, a study compared acupuncture to CBT-i in cancer patients with insomnia (very common) (3). Cancer patients typically prefer treatment methods that don’t involve more medication, so having another alternative to CBT-i could be useful.

They found:

Although both treatments produced meaningful and durable improvements, CBT-I was more effective and should be the first line of therapy

Results were measured using the insomnia severity index (ISI), and acupuncture produced results closer to CBT than many would have expected.

SummaryCBT is the cornerstone of most insomnia treatment plans, but initial research shows that acupuncture can produce results of a similar magnitude.

How Long Do Benefits of Acupuncture Last For?

If the effects of a treatment method go away after treatment ends, then it’s only useful for short term relief. For example, chamomile tea can help insomnia, but the effect disappears quickly once someone stops drinking it regularly.

The best insomnia treatments produce improvements in sleep that last far beyond treatment.

A 2017 study looked at this exact topic (4).

As expected, acupuncture treatment did produce a significant improvement in insomnia severity index score. The improvement in insomnia symptoms remained at 2 and 4 weeks post-treatment, and at the 2 and 4 week follow-up as well with minimal regression.

In other words, the acupuncture treatment produced results that were seen 2 months later.

SummaryImprovements in sleep as a result of acupuncture can last for a substantial time after treatment.

Does Acupuncture Have Side Effects?

Not everyone likes getting many needles stuck in them for obvious reasons.

But for those who can live with it, there’s not much risk of side effects.

From the earlier meta-study, adverse events aren’t particularly common (about 4% of people), and are mild. Here are reported adverse effects from most to least common:

  • Bruising
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle conclusion
  • Fainting during treatment
  • Hand numbness
  • Pain

None of these are particularly serious.

SummaryOverall, acupuncture is a relatively safe treatment method for sleep issues, but some people will experience mild adverse reactions.

Summary: Can Acupuncture Improve Insomnia?

Current research shows that acupuncture can produce a significant improvement on stress levels and insomnia symptoms.

There are some limitations of that research and questions over the quality of it, so there aren’t going to be many doctors prescribing it as a primary way to treat insomnia.

However, acupuncture can be a good secondary treatment that can potentially add to the effectiveness of CBT-i and other proven insomnia treatment methods.

References

  1. A systematic review of acupuncture for sleep quality in people with insomnia
  2. Acupuncture for treatment of insomnia
  3. Acupuncture Versus Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia in Cancer Survivors
  4. Efficacy and safety of acupuncture treatment on primary insomnia

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.