Can Acupuncture Help with Sleep? Here’s What the Experts Say

Science may support the idea of turning yourself into a human pincushion for better sleep, but there are some important points to consider before trying it.

A woman lays on her stomach while an acupuncturist performs an acupuncture procedure to her back. She looks rested and peaceful. Here's everything you need to know about acupuncture for sleep.
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Getting a dozen needles poked into your body might sound like a nightmare, but hear us out: Better sleep might be just a few acupuncture sessions away.

From pain and headaches to sleep-disrupting stress and anxiety, there are many things this age-old Chinese practice promises to treat. Sleep problems are actually one of the top reasons people seek out acupuncture, says Theodore Levarda, a licensed acupuncturist at Morningside Acupuncture in New York City.

“I work with this pretty regularly, and in a lot of cases, people say they slept really well the night of their session, or even for a few days or a week after,” he explains.

Anecdotal evidence is one thing. But if you’re averse to needles or simply skeptical about the idea of lying still for a prolonged period while you have a dozen or so stuck into various parts of your body, you’ll probably want to know what the chances are that this technique will actually work for you. Here’s the lowdown on the benefits of acupuncture for sleep, along with what to expect during your first session.

Acupuncture and sleep: What the science says

Practiced for more than 3,000 years, acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting very thin needles into specific points on the body. It’s based on the philosophy that energy flow (or qi, pronounced “chee”) runs through pathways (or meridians) that connect to more than 2,000 acupuncture points in our bodies. When that energy flow is disrupted, we come down with all kinds of diseases and ailments — including sleep problems.

That’s where acupuncture comes in. Inserting needles into strategic points on the body can rebalance our energy flow and ultimately restore our health, or so the idea goes. While acupuncture is widely accepted as a bonafide medical technique in China, research is still exploring its place within Western medicine. That doesn’t mean acupuncture is without merit, though.

“Acupuncture is being increasingly recognized by physicians and covered by health insurance in the United States,” notes Dr. Gary Stanton, a neurologist with board certifications in sleep medicine and medical acupuncture. “This is a well-respected treatment.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), research supports acupuncture’s ability to ease many types of pain, including in the lower back, neck, and knees. It may also be effective at reducing how often you get tension headaches and migraine attacks. So, if those issues are preventing you from getting a good night’s rest, acupuncture might be worth a try.

While the NIH is mum on whether acupuncture can directly help sleep troubles, some research suggests it can put you on the path toward better slumber. The results of a 2020 meta-analysis, which reviewed 15 studies involving 1,108 participants, found that acupuncture was better than a placebo at curbing insomnia and improving the quality and duration of sleep. Acupuncture was also found to be an effective insomnia treatment in an earlier review of 46 randomized trials on more than 3,800 people.

What’s more, other studies have shown that acupuncture may have the power to reduce sleep disturbances related to menopause, improve symptoms in people with obstructive sleep apnea, and boost melatonin in adults with anxiety and insomnia. The results are promising, but more studies are needed before we can definitively say whether acupuncture will work for a specific person or condition.

With that said, acupuncture is considered safe when performed by a licensed professional. A large study on 32,000 acupuncture sessions in the UK found that serious reactions are extremely rare, and even minor side effects (like bleeding and pain) were uncommon and went away quickly. And despite what you may think, acupuncture doesn’t usually hurt. The needles are so thin that many people don’t even feel them inserted.

Given the potential for benefits and low risk of side effects, acupuncture might be an option worth exploring if you haven’t been sleeping well.

“The most common risk of acupuncture is bruising, but it doesn’t happen that often, only in about 1 in every 1,000 needles I put in,” says Tom Ingegno, a licensed acupuncturist at Charm City Integrative Health in Baltimore. “The worst case is that acupuncture might not work for you — and that’s true of any therapy.”

Getting started with acupuncture for sleep

No matter how desperate you might be for better sleep, don’t just go to anyone for acupuncture. Working with a licensed and experienced professional is the best way to make sure your sessions are safe and effective. You can search for a qualified acupuncturist through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. Some may even focus on acupuncture for sleep and relaxation.

Your first session will start with a chat about your medical history, symptoms, and any issues you’re hoping to address through acupuncture. They’ll also ask you to stick out your tongue (yes, really!) to check for signs of imbalances.

Then, the treatment will begin. You’ll lie down on a table and the acupuncturist will carefully place needles in meridians that may be imbalanced and causing health problems. In the case of sleep problems, Stanton says you may have needles placed in your yin tang point (the spot between your eyebrows), arms, legs, stomach, feet, and/or chest, depending on the suspected cause.

Once the needles are placed, the acupuncturist may dim the lights, play soothing music, and leave the room, checking on you periodically. Acupuncture treatments usually last 30 to 60 minutes and, in many cases, are so relaxing that people fall asleep.

That power nap alone might make you feel great if you’ve been sleeping poorly, but a single session of acupuncture probably won’t be a miracle cure for sleep problems — especially if they’ve been going on a long time. Your acupuncturist may recommend getting treatments once or twice a week for several weeks in a row at first, depending on what’s going on in your body, then reducing the frequency once you begin sleeping better.

“You have to be prepared to go at least a few times to give it a chance. Getting acupuncture just once or twice might not be enough for the average person,” explains Stanton.

And while there’s no guarantee that acupuncture alone will resolve your sleep issues, experts say you can boost the likelihood of better slumber by combining acupuncture with other potential solutions, like talk therapy, sleep hygiene practices, medications prescribed by a doctor, and general self-care.

“As a physician, I believe acupuncture is one facet of medicine. I do it every day and it gives me a feeling that I’m not practicing just the science of medicine, but the art of medicine,” says Stanton. “Still, it’s not the end-all be-all for all problems.”