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Acupuncture May Help With Sleep Apnea

by Alex A. Kecskes

Sleep apnea is a condition in which people simply stop breathing for short periods of time while they sleep. These episodes can occur up to 100 times in one hour. Most people don't completely wake up when this occurs, but will feel exhausted in the morning and tired during the day. In some cases, sleep apnea can cause impotence or high blood pressure.

There are various types of sleep apnea. Obstructive apnea is often caused by a blocked upper airway. Central apnea occurs when your brain fails to signal your lungs to breathe. Other causes include obesity, large tonsils and adenoids. Men and women of any age group can suffer from sleep apnea. Sometimes alcohol, sleeping pills, or heart medications, can trigger apnea. It can even be inherited.

Acupuncture/acupressure works by stimulating the muscles of the upper respiratory airways, which usually collapse during episodes of sleep apnea. The technique may not work for patients with severe sleep apnea. Some evidence suggests that a type of acupuncture called auriculotherapy acupoint pressure may help treat sleep apnea.

Auriculotherapy involves treating the ear as a microsystem with the entire body represented on the auricle, the outer portion of the ear. Also known as ear acupuncture or auricular acupuncture, critical points are stimulated by inserting acupuncture needles into the outer areas of the ear. Specific points on the ear can also be stimulated by manual pressure, referred to as auricular acupressure or ear reflexology. In some cases, these acupuncture points can even be stimulated with lasers, magnets, and ear pellets.

In classical acupuncture, energy meridians  around the ear must be unblocked to eliminate the conditions that result in sleep apnea. Inserting acupuncture needles into specific acupoints can relieve the symptoms and underlying problems that create sleep apnea. Some of the meridian energy lines of force connect to the external ear, thus creating the field of auricular acupuncture. Different perspectives of auriculotherapy focus not on the acupuncture meridians but on the use of the ear as a localized reflex system connected to the central nervous system.

In one study that evaluated the clinical effects and mechanism of auricular acupressure, 45 patients with sleep apnea were randomly divided into an acupressure group (30 patients) and a control group (15 patients). Those receiving acupressure treatments noticed a significant reduction in symptoms after treatment. Those in the control group, noted no improvement. The study concluded that auriculotherapy may provide an economic and safe therapy for the early prevention and treatment of sleep apnea.

Prior to treating a patient who suffers from sleep apnea with acupuncture, an acupuncturist will learn as much as possible about the sufferer's medical history and lifestyle. TCM believes that all illnesses are caused by a blockage of energy flow in the body. Information provided by the patient helps practitioners identify the likely points that require treatment.

Before attempting any acupuncture/acupressure therapy for the treatment of sleep apnea, consult a primary care physician. If he or she advises that acupuncture/acupressure may help, find a licensed acupuncturist who is nationally certified through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (www.ncbtmb.org) or the American Massage Therapy Association (www.amtamassage.org).

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