Healthy Obsessions The Adventures of a Mild Obsessive Compulsive

Acupuncture for Sleep Apnea?

Edward Burnes-Jones' Sleeping Beauty

Wouldn’t that be nice?

In my obsessive googling of those terms, I came across an interesting article abstract.

It’s not conclusive, not by a long shot. And I wish I had access to the full article, but since I’m no longer university faculty, I no longer have access to those databases. I hear that I could just go to the Stanford Medical Library and plop myself down there to do research. Can’t take any materials, but could at least read them on site.

Wait a minute. Scratch that., you have come to my rescue! Voila.

It’s a small study. Only 26 completed it, and that’s hardly a sufficient sample size. Then again, with this sort of thing you’re already limited by access to patients with sleep apnea who are willing to try acupuncture and (likely) don’t have other medical issues going on to cloud results. Not a huge group. Of course, we also need studies like this to prove that it’s worth the investment to do larger studies.

They divided the patients into 3 groups: real acupuncture, sham acupuncture, and control (no acupuncture), and tracked them for three months.

The article notes a marked improvement in mental health in the acupuncture group. Which is interesting. It could be that acupuncture caused an elevated mood thanks to serotonin moderation. Or, it could be that having a treatment at all, and therefore having hope, created the elevated mood. It’s a known phenomenon is psychology: often the simple act of scheduling an appointment with a therapist will improve the patient’s mood. I suspect it also has to do with the sense of being in control. We’re happier when we feel we have control of our lives.

This sentence, though, this sentence is the interesting one:

The acupuncture group showed a marked significant improvement, mainly in respiratory parameters.

Hot damn. Sounds great. Of course, the term “significant” used in a statistical context doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s quite so big a difference as we might hope. Nonetheless, lower AHI, plus quicker sleep onset (67% shorter sleep latency), +8% sleep efficiency, and a 2.6 increase in oxygen saturation rate. These are all great.

However, the sham acupuncture group also had an increase in sleep efficiency of 14%. Last time I checked, 14 was a bigger number than 8. And the control group had a 12% increase in sleep efficiency. Twelve is also more than 8. However – the sham group showed no other sleep related changes. And the control group actively got worse: 53% more respiratory events. Youch.

They do note that the improvements in the acupuncture group may have actually been the result of improvements with asthma or allergic rhinits. Both of which are known to affect sleep apnea, and both of which have some promising clinical data. However, most of the patients in the study had neither. Another possibility is the serotonin connection (remember that from earlier, with the whole elevated mood thing?). Serotonin apparently has an effect on airway muscle tone during sleep; it fires off caudal raphe neurons, which control the muscles. (And no, I hadn’t heard of them before reading this article, either).

That seems to be the favored theory for why acupuncture helped. This also argues in favor of SSRIs (yay me, for already being on one – although my sleep was pretty wretched for at least one month in the midst of it).

The part I find kinda funny is this line from the abstract: Acupuncture is more effective than sham acupuncture in ameliorating the respiratory events of patients presenting with moderate OSAS.

As a layperson reading this, that phrasing makes me stop for a moment and wonder. They aren’t saying it’s actually a treatment. They’re just saying it’s better than a fake treatment. Well, fake pearls make better jewelry than no pearls. That still doesn’t make them pearls. The word choice seems to undermine the conclusion.

The phrasing likely has nothing to do with the intent to imply that acupuncture doesn’t work, and probably has everything to do with being scientifically precise. I just find it amusing.

And yes, I have been sleeping better since I started acupuncture. I thought it was just because I was in less pain.

Six wakings is a whole lot better than 38, don't you think?

2 Thoughts on “Acupuncture for Sleep Apnea?

  1. Is your sleep apnea the type that can be treated by those darth vader breathing machines? One of those works very well for my dad.

    • A CPAP. Usually, yes. It hasn’t been working lately; I think the pressure is too high since it keeps sending air into my stomach, which wakes me up at night. I lost a lot of weight, so it may need to be readjusted.

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