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In Asia, acupuncture has been used for centuries as a means of treating everything from headaches and neck pain to nausea and even depression. It's a respected practice, one with a long, complex history Despite some raised eyebrows from doctors, more and more of the stressed out, sore workers are looking towards the eastern medicine: roughly 10 percent of Americans have admitted that, at one point or another, they've endured sessions with strategically-placed needles. This growing popularity is in no small part to the practice's ability to cure one ailment in particular: insomnia. 

Traditional oiinese medicine is based on the 2000-year-old philosophy that two opposing forces, yin and yang, inhabit the body. Energy flows along specific pathways throughout the body keeping these forces balanced and the body healthy. If the flow of energy gets blocked, however, the disruption can lead to pain, lack of function, or illness. Acupuncture therapy releases these blockages in the body and stimulates function, evoking the body’s natural healing response through various physiological systems.

In contrast, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site, many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. “Some believe that this stimulation boosts your body's natural painkillers and increases blood flow.”

According to UCSD’s Center for Integrative Medicine, “acupuncture improves the body’s functions and promotes the natural self-healing process by stimulating specific anatomic sites — commonly referred to as acupuncture points, or acupoints.”

A pleasant side effect of a session? Several nights’ worth of better sleep.

Despite the difference in descriptions, modern research has demonstrated acupuncture’s effects on the nervous, endocrine and immune, cardiovascular and digestive systems. Executed properly, it is confirmed, acupuncture can help to resolve pain, restore digestive function, provide a sense of well-being, and improve sleep.

A pleasant side effect of a session? Several nights’ worth of better sleep.

“About ninety percent of my patients, in fact, fall asleep on the table during a treatment and many leave feeling quite relaxed and almost euphoric,” says Teri Goetz, a New York-based acupuncturist.

There may be a reason. Commonly used in treating insomnia in China, acupuncture has been shown in clinical studies to have a beneficial effect on insomnia compared with Western medication. In one report published by the National Institute of Health, the practice was shown to reduce insomnia and anxiety. (It was suggested that the process stimulated melatonin production.)

According to Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Successa comprehensive study by the Department of Radiology in San Gerardo Hospital, Italy, determined that sixty percent of patients with sleep disorders had improvement after two weeks of acupuncture.

Vintage Acupuncture Chart

“They determined that the acupuncture point for treating insomnia was the HT 7 point—the point at the intersection of the hand and wrist closest to the body [opposite the thumb],” says Stevenson. “In a double-blind study, manipulation at this point resulted in urinary melatonin metabolites.”

Another study reported by the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (National Institute of Health) indicates that acupuncture can increase the content of γ-amino butyric acid, which enhances sleep quality.

A comprehensive study determined that sixty percent of patients with sleep disorders had improvement after two weeks of acupuncture.

Needle prodding also makes sleep more effective by mobilizing stem cells, says Stevenson. “During sleep is when we do our vast majority of healing. The mobilization of stem cells accelerates this.”

Both Stevenson and Goetz are clear to state that the Chinese consider insomnia differently than we do in the West. “Chinese medicine sees insomnia as a symptom, not a disease — and people present with different patterns which acupuncturists treat,” says Goetz. “When you treat the pattern, the symptoms tend to fall away.”

According to Goetz, these patterns, to use the acupuncture terminology, might be “liver qi” stagnation, “heart fire” or “kidney yin deficiency" and they’ll manifest slightly different patterns of insomnia.

“Chinese medicine sees insomnia as a symptom, not a disease — and people present with different patterns which acupuncturists treat,”

Someone with Kidney yin deficiency, for instance, might have difficulty falling asleep, restless sleep or be awake off and on all night; someone with liver qi stagnation, on the other hand, might wake pretty regularly between two and 4 a.m. or have difficulty falling asleep.

And while Western doctors treat illness, Chinese medicine is preventive.

“Acupuncture is meant to be proactive,” says Goetz. “Asians pay doctors to keep them well.” It wouldn’t be uncommon for a Chinese patient to have several sessions of acupuncture in a week—before symptoms of insomnia present themselves.

It's a convincing argument and. For those interested, the Mayo Clinic lists several suggestions for choosing an acupuncturist, some of which includes checking to see if the specialist you’re seeking is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and whether or not your insurance covers the procedure. 

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Additionally, it’s smart to understand the difference between “dry needling”, another common form of the practice, and acupuncture. This is more or less an issue of West versus East.

Per Goetx, dry needling is when a practitioner needles into trigger ("you needle where it hurts.") But there are real techniques to understand, such as how far to insert the needle and how to manipulate it, he adds. " It must be studied to avoid injury. The goal in dry needling is to elicit a muscle contraction which signals the body to relax the muscle and can be very effective for pain.”

“This is a hot point of contention between physical therapists and acupuncturists,” says Goetz. “Physical therapists claim that these points are not on meridians, but instead simply painful points in the musculature. Acupuncturists claim that they are on what we call the ‘tendino muscular channel’ of a meridian and therefore should be treated as such.”

Additionally, acupuncture practice involves various techniques, including “sharp-hook acupuncture,” whereas dry needling is more limited.

Regardless of the type you choose, acupuncture, it seems, could be the solution to sleepless nights. Who knew needles could calm you down?