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Ask an expert - neuro and psycho logical - insomnia

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As our two factsheets show

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there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that acupuncture may be of value in treating both of these conditions. The research is still a little methodologically weak and not quite plentiful enough for us to give an unqualified recommendation, but both of these disorders have existed for thousands of years, and Chinese medicine, exactly as conventional does today, has developed a number of established protocols for the more frequent clinical presentations.
However, the real strength of Chinese medicine is that is sees all of the symptoms which a patient experiences as a part of an overall pattern rather than single and separate problems to be picked off one at a time. If someone is suffering from insomnia and depression it is highly likely that these are just a part of a much wider picture which probably contains a number of physical symptoms or dysfunctions, as well as mental and emotional components. A practitioner will want to spend time looking at all aspects of the way someone is functioning to make the most accurate assessment of what is happening in the individual patient, and to gain a better understanding of how the problems have arisen.


We would advise you to seek out a BAcC member local to you and arrange a short visit to discuss with them whether they think acupuncture might be a suitable option.   

Q:I have insomnia caused by an over active mind. I have no trouble at all going to sleep, but I often wake in the night, usually to go to the toilet, and my mind starts racing and I can't go back to sleep. Please could you let me know if acupuncture can help with this sort of insomnia?


A: As far as insomnia itself is concerned, there have been many trials which seem to show that acupuncture may be of benefit to you. A systematic review at
which is effectively a review of all trials in order to aggregate their findings, makes the same positive noises with which we are familiar - 'signs that there is an effect but need larger trials to confirm'.
However, the great strength of Chinese medicine is that each person is unique and different, and no single disease label will ever capture that. Your experience of insomnia, while similar to others, will not be exactly the same, and it is the small details even in the brief note which you send which would excite the practitioner's interest. Getting to sleep originally but waking later, needing to go to the toilet, the description of the mind racing, your sense of having an over active mind - all of these suggest possible changes in the body's functions as understood in Chinese medicine which, together with signs which a practitioner uses like the reading the tongue and taking the pulse at the wrist, would lead them to a diagnosis unique to you. Treatment would then be aimed at correcting the specific imbalances which manifest in order encourage proper function again.
The practitioner would routinely ask a great many questions about lifestyle and daily habits, and there may well be some additional clues and keys in what they find. We're sure that you have eliminated the obvious culprits, like strong caffeine drinks towards the evening, and also too much liquid before sleeping, but there may be nonetheless things that you are eating, drinking or doing which, given your own specific patterns of energy, may be causing the cycle to continue. Of course, the worst problem is dealing with the expectation that once you wake you're awake, and that's that. For people who have never suffered insomnia this is difficult to understand, but rather like the film Groundhog Day, the dreadful feeling that it's 3.00am and you're awake exactly the same again is a hard one to describe to someone who has never experienced it.
Our best advice is to contact a BACC member local to you for a bried face to face chat about whether they think they can help your specific case, and if so, what their expectation might be. We trust that they will give you an honest assessment.

Q:  I have had chronic insomnia for 7years i do not sleep at all. I dont have energy to fall asleep. My blood is very weak and not strong enough to help me fall asleep. I have a weak stomach and liver, i am anemic. I have digestion, absorption and assimulation problems, my muscles are weak and my eyes are dark and shrinked i am 31 years old please give me advice


A:  We are very sorry to hear that you have such a range of problems, any alone of which would be of concern.
There is no doubt that we could provide you with whatever evidence exists on each of the areas you mention. Some of it is favourable, some of it less so. However, your case is exactly the kind of overall presentation which highlights the difference between the ways in which western and eastern medicine is practised. From a western perspective each symptom will offer a treatment route which may end up with a specific medication or a referral to a specialist. There is a possibility that some of the symptoms are inter-related, and we are always unhappy to see western medicine characterised as 'not holistic'. In our experience good doctors are just as concerned with the overall picture as anyone else, and always keen to establish links between symptoms.
However, Chinese medicine works from an entirely different understanding of physiology based on the flow of energy, called 'qi', and on different understanding of the organs of the body as functional units which govern all aspects of the body mind and emotions. The various symptoms which people experience point to failures of function, and because the whole system is based on inter-connection and inter-relationship, a skilled Chinese medicine practitioner will be able to make sense of what appears to be a chaotic situation and prioritise those areas of functions on which a primary focus needs to be made.
We are assuming from the language of your question that you have already been given some fairly detailed analyses of your health in western terms. If this is not the case, it is very likely that a practitioner might direct you to your GP alongside any treatment which they might offer. All of our members are trained sufficiently to recognise what are called 'red flag' conditions, problems for which conventional medical treatment is necessary as soon as possible. Some of the symptoms you describe in someone of your age might point to some important underlying pathologies, and a practitioner will want to be reassured as much as you do that this is not the case.
Our advice to you is to visit a BAcC member local to you to ask their advice on whether acupuncture treatment is appropriate for you, and we think that you should let them know in the conversation the extent of your consultations with conventional medical practitioners. We are sure that they will ask anyway, but if may help them to form a view if you have some form of brief record of your medical history with you. 

Q: I suffer from a parasomnia - night terrors and the GP suggested acupuncture may help. Can you please advise if it might? I have had a sleep study and this is an official medical diagnosis.

A: Night terrors are one of a number of disorders, such as sleepwalking, which occur alongside sleep, and are not simply bad nightmares, as any sufferer like you can attest. There is not a great deal of evidence from the world of formal research about the effect of acupuncture on night terrors. They are more common in children than adults, and there are many anecdotal reports of acupuncture having a beneficial effect on them, but these are not enough for us to make any claims to efficacy - the advertising rules are very strict on this point!
However, it is fair to say that night terrors are not an invention on the 20th century, and people have always suffered from them. Chinese medicine, which works from an entirely different paradigm (conceptual system and system of diagnosis and treatment) has a number of ways of fitting the descriptions which people give of their night terror symptoms into clearly defined categories. Most involved a disturbance in the qi, the energy flow of the body, and tend to describe night terrors and similar conditions in terms of the qi not descending properly at night time and its disturbance then leading to forms of unusual behaviour and experience during sleep. Even in the absence of specific defined syndromes, a Chinese medicine practitioner would see the symptom as a sign that the whole system was out of balance, and use his or her skills to determine where amd what imbalances there were in the system and attempt to understand the overall pattern and then correct them.
The chances are that the problem is not an isolated phenomenon in the person, and there will be other imbalances which the person may not even recognise as such which make the whole pattern a great deal clearer when a practitioner can see the person and discuss their symptoms face to face. We would recommend that your best option is to seek out a BAcC member local to you and see if they can spare a few minutes, hopefully without charge, to see whether they think they can help you. 


Q. I suffer cronic insomnia i canot get too sleep and am awake all night, and i mean all night, i am feeling very worried what is the sucess rate re acupunture, thank you


A. We are sorry to hear of your problem. Insomnia is a great deal more widespread than people think, and the effects on someone's overall health and well-being can be devastating. Our factsheet on insomnia, which you can find on our website under the 'research' button at the top of the home page or by clicking this link is very encouraging about how acupuncture has been used in trials.
The strict advertising rules under which all healthcare practitioners now operate means that we have to be careful not to 'over-claim' the benefits of treatment unless there is accepted and definite proof of efficacy. There are, though, a number of conditions, of which insomnia is one, where many of the small-scale studies and trials show positive indications and where eventually we believe significant large-scale trials will provide hard evidence.
As we repeat in every answer, however, everyone is unique and different in Chinese medicine, so there is no single simple formula treatment for a named condition. Your best way of finding out whether your own case is suitable for treatment is to visit a practitioner lcoal to you and to ask for advice on whether they think they may be able to help you.

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