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  • Writer's picturePhilip Niño Tan-Gatue

Acupuncture for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition where the patient stops breathing while sleeping.  Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common kind of sleep apnea.  WebMD has the following explanation:

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — also called obstructive sleep apnea syndrome — occurs when there are repeated episodes of complete or partial blockage of the upper airway during sleep. During a sleep apnea episode, the diaphragm and chest muscles work harder to open the obstructed airway and pull air into the lungs. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp, snort, or body jerk. These episodes can interfere with sound sleep. They can also reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs and cause irregular heart rhythms.

Obviously, this just doesn’t bother the sleeper, but all those who attempt to sleep in the same room or bed with the patient.

Image courtesy of ambro /"

Image courtesy of ambro /”

The standard treatment is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure.  Some patients don’t like this though, and search for alternatives.  Fortunately, there is acupuncture.

Acupuncture Research

The first study I would like to cite is from 2007.  It is entitled Here, the scientists aimed to assess the efficacy of acupuncture through three methods.  These were polysomnography (PSG) and questionnaires of functional quality of life (SF-36) and excessive daytime sleepiness (Epworth).

Here is the summary of their methods:

We performed a randomised, placebo-controlled, single-blinded study, with blinded evaluation on 36 patients presenting an apnea/hypopnea index (AHI) of 15-30/h, assessed by PSG. The study took place at the Public Hospital of the Universidade Federal de São Paulo, Brazil, in the Division of Sleep Disorders of the Department of Psychobiology, between January, 2002 and August, 2004. Patients were randomly assigned to three groups: the acupuncture group (n=12); the sham group, submitted to needle insertion in non-acupoints (n=12); and the control group, receiving no treatment (n=12). Patients received acupuncture or sham acupuncture once a week for 10 weeks.

Normally, scientists prefer double blinded studies where both the researcher and the patient are unaware if the subject is receiving the real treatment or sham treatment.  In this case, since sham treatment involved inserting needles into non-acupoints, it is obvious that the researcher cannot be “blinded” and is aware who is getting authentic acupuncture versus fake.

A third of the patients got the real deal, another third got fake acupuncture, and the last third got nothing (awww.)

What were the results?

Twenty-six patients completed the study. The AHI (P=0.005), the apnea index (AI) (P=0.008) and the number of respiratory events (P=0.005) decreased significantly in the acupuncture group but not in the sham group. On the other hand, the control group displayed significant deterioration in some of the polysomnographic parameters, with a significant increase in the number of respiratory events (P=0.025). Acupuncture treatment significantly improved (before vs. after treatment) several dimensions of the SF-36 and Epworth questionnaires. There was no significant association between changes in the body mass index (BMI) and AHI.

Ultimately, this means that patients who got nothing actually got worse over time.  Those who got fake acupuncture stayed the same, while those who got the real deal got real positive results.


“Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome (OSA): Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, and More.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 06 July 2014. (link)

Freire AO, Sugai GC, Chrispin FS, Togeiro SM, Yamamura Y, Mello LE, Tufik S. “Treatment of moderate obstructive sleep apnea syndrome with acupuncture: a randomised, placebo-controlled pilot trial.” Sleep Med. 2007 Jan;8(1):43-50. Epub 2006 Oct 4. PubMed PMID: 17023212 (link)

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