Acupuncture gives relief to cancer patients suffering insomnia

Doctors may be turning away from medication and headed toward more holistic methods to treat cancer survivors who suffer from severe insomnia.

Research suggests up to 60 percent of cancer survivors have trouble falling asleep or suffer from chronic insomnia because of cancer treatments like chemotherapy and steroids, as well as psychological distress.

Typically patients are treated through prescription pills, though those can only be used for a short amount of time and can cause dependency.

Dr. Jun Mao, chief of integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, wanted to study a more natural approach to treating the debilitating side effects of chronic insomnia in cancer survivors through acupuncture and cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

Acupuncture works by putting very fine needles into specific points in the body to stimulate the nerves on or beneath the skin and signal the brain to release the body’s natural painkillers like endorphins or dopamine. For the study, “some of the needles are in the scalp and in the ear, and also in the wrist or in around the feet,” Mao said.

“CBT-I is a very specific type of counseling techniques," Mao said. "It’s different than the generic CBT for treating depression or anxiety. It really targets a specific behavioral pathway leading to insomnia.”

For the Choice clinical trial, Mao recruited 160 survivors with clinically diagnosed insomnia to undergo eight weeks of treatment with acupuncture or CBT-I.

Among those chosen for the trial was Michael Whitfield Jones, a prostate cancer survivor who had been experiencing chronic insomnia since 2006 when he had a prostatectomy.

“I was waking up in the middle of night staying up, and by the time I’d get back to sleep it’d be time to wake up again and I never had these issues, ever, ever, ever,” Jones said.

"I became anxious about the fact that my sleep was not adequate, it was interrupted and I knew it’s not good for me," he said. "I just had this nagging feeling ‘I must sleep and something’s wrong’ that’s when I started making myself a little mental.”

Jones said he had tried medication before, but preferred to treat his sleeping issues without drugs.

"I liked the idea of acupuncture because it’s been around for thousands of years, principally in Asia and it’s not a pill … so, it’s a good natural kind of thing that’s got real science behind it actually so that’s why I was interested in it,” Jones said.

"I have tried some [medications] and I always felt like, I just felt really bad in the morning like I had a hangover without the joy of doing something silly and I didn’t want to add another pill to my life,”  he added.

Mao’s study found both CBT-I and acupuncture were effective in treating moderate to severe insomnia, but CBT-I was more effective for those with mild symptoms of sleeplessness.

“It does tell me as a clinician as well as a researcher for sort of mild sleep issues we need to start with sort of behavioral change, rather than go to acupuncture. But for the moderate to severe, I think that acupuncture can be a very useful tool,” Mao said.

Jones underwent the acupuncture treatments for the study and experienced relief for the first time in years.

"I don’t have those days where I’m like 'Oh my god I didn’t get enough sleep last night,’ I don’t have those days anymore, that’s a big deal,” he said.

Even after stopping the treatment, the Choice study found that sleeping improvements were sustained for up three months without any additional treatments.