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Treating Sleep Apnea With Acupuncture In Houston
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Acupuncture for Sleep Apnea

There is promising research backing acupuncture as an effective adjunct or alternative therapy for sleep apnea. Used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, acupuncture treatment supports whole-body, system-wide health.

Some of acupuncture’s beneficial effects can resolve the underlying factors causing sleep apnea and improve overall quality of life. 

How Does Acupuncture Help Those with Sleep Apnea?

Medical researchers have advanced several theories regarding acupuncture’s efficacy for sleep apnea symptoms. They include:

Nervous system stimulation and modulation

When acupuncture needles are inserted into the skin, they innervate local and distal nerves. Depending on which points are activated, acupuncture can facilitate better communication between the brain and other parts of the body.

Some research teams have proposed that acupuncture may stimulate and strengthen tissues involved in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This includes the tongue and other tissues that may block the airway. By toning these tissues, they are more likely to retain their position during sleep. 

Improved relaxation response

Acupuncture is a popular option for anxiety and stress relief because it can put the body in a relaxed state. The treatment process itself is calming, and acupuncture also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Responsible for modulating heart rate and respiration, the parasympathetic nervous system helps maintain relaxation. 

All of this makes it easier for people to inhale deeply. Some researchers propose that improved breathing is behind acupuncture’s efficacy with sleep apnea.

Reduced inflammation

Acupuncture releases a host of compounds that downregulate the inflammatory response through a variety of biological pathways. This isn’t just good for overall health, as it can prevent inflamed tissues from blocking the throat and creating airway pressure.

Researchers believe the above mechanisms may be at work with sleep apnea. In addition, medical studies show that acupuncture can do the following:

Improve circulation

Acupuncture treatment releases vasodilators into the blood that relax blood vessels and improve their vascular efficiency. Better blood flow means better oxygen and nutritional delivery to tissues.

Balance hormone levels

Acupuncture also modulates communication between the nervous and endocrine systems. This gives the body better control over hormone expression and brings various hormones back into balance. This includes thyroid hormones, which can have an impact on sleep quality. 

Reduce pain signaling

Acupuncture also releases compounds that are effective at blocking pain signals. Termed endogenous opioids, these compounds work like natural painkillers by clogging up pain receptors. While pain may not be associated with sleep apnea, it is associated with reduced sleep quality.

These effects may not directly affect sleep apnea, but they can help people whose sleep apnea may be causing or worsening other sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

What the Medical Research Says About Acupuncture and Sleep Apnea

In recent years, medical researchers have published several studies providing evidence for acupuncture’s use in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

A 2020 review and analysis published in BioMed Research International is of particular note. This review reveals how acupuncture may improve the underlying biomarkers associated with sleep apnea.

The research team considered nine studies and a total of 584 patients. Study participants were categorized by condition severity (using the apnea-hypopnea index, or AHI, to sort subjects) and given either acupuncture at specified points, or electroacupuncture.

The results of the studies were positive in acupuncture’s favor. Following either acupuncture or electroacupuncture treatments, the review’s authors discovered:

  • A reduction in AHI – The apnea-hypopnea index measures the number of apnea (no breathing) and hypopnea (reduced breathing) events that occur during a single hour of sleep. The higher this number, the more severe the condition.

    The research team found that acupuncture reduced AHI in patients and that this effect was more pronounced in patients with severe sleep apnea.

  • A reduction in ESS – The Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS) is a self-administered survey that tracks a person’s likelihood of daytime sleepiness. It asks respondents to gauge their risk of falling asleep during different daytime activities, such as driving a car or sitting and watching television. Higher ESS scores suggest excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue.

    The researchers discovered that acupuncture treatments reduced ESS scores in adults and improved fatigue-related symptoms.

  • Improved LSaO2 – Oxygen saturation (SaO2) measures the proportion of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin to total hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin is the protein responsible for binding oxygen to red blood cells and is therefore essential for efficient oxygen transport from the lungs to the rest of the body.

    Sleep apnea patients tend to have lower oxygen saturation numbers, as a result of poor oxygen delivery from the lungs to red blood cells.

    LSaO2 measures the lowest oxygen saturation during a single hour of sleep and is another marker used to describe sleep apnea severity. Higher numbers mean better respiratory performance.

    The research team found that acupuncture treatment boosted LSaO2 in study subjects, increasing the amount of available oxygen in the blood.

These biomarkers are closely associated with sleep apnea and demonstrate physiological improvements following acupuncture. 

Why It's Important to Treat Sleep Apnea

Because it occurs during sleep, it’s common for sleep apnea to go undiagnosed or untreated. However, there are risks with delaying treatment. Some of the risks include:

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular problems – When blood oxygen levels drop, it forces the heart to compensate by increasing blood pressure. As such, sleep apnea is associated with an array of cardiovascular issues, including heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeat, and hypertension.
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes – Studies also show a connection between sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes. Disrupted sleep can interfere with insulin expression, which itself is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
  • Increased fatigue – Sleep apnea damages sleep quality and quantity, leading to daytime fatigue. This can put people at risk of accidents and reduce their daytime productivity.
  • Irritability or mood swings – Poor sleep is linked to increased irritability, frustration, anger, and sadness. Further, anxiety and depression symptoms may be more intense if sleep quality is poor.

There are additional complications of sleep apnea, including metabolic syndrome, liver problems, snoring, and disrupting your partner’s sleep. In short, there are many good reasons to address your sleep apnea as it is not a harmless condition.

Houston Acupuncture Can Help with Sleep Apnea

Typical western treatments for sleep apnea include a CPAP machine. However, patient compliance with CPAP machines is relatively low, as it’s expensive and uncomfortable for many people to wear during sleep.

For these patients, acupuncture represents a more comfortable alternative that can address the underlying causes of sleep apnea.

It’s important to work with an experienced Houston acupuncturist when seeking treatment. Ideally, this would be an acupuncturist who is also board-certified in western medicine, like Houston Acupuncture. A physician who is qualified in both western and Chinese medicine will be able to provide a comprehensive, customized form of treatment that’s individualized to your sleep apnea case.

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