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What makes one respond to acupuncture for insomnia? Perspectives of cancer survivors

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 October 2019

Sally A.D. Romero
Department of Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY
Eileen Jiang
School of Medicine, New York University, New York, NY
Jason Bussell
A Center for Oriental Medicine, Chicago, IL
Whitney Eriksen
Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Katherine N. Duhamel
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY
Frances K. Barg
Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Jun J. Mao*
Department of Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY
Author for correspondence: Jun J. Mao, M.D., M.S.C.E., Bendheim Integrative Medicine Center, 1429 First Avenue, New York, NY10021. Email:



Like any therapy, acupuncture is effective for some patients, while not helpful for others. Understanding from a patients' perspective what makes one respond or not to acupuncture can help guide further intervention development. This study aimed to identify factors that influence the perception of acupuncture's therapeutic effect among cancer survivors with insomnia.


We conducted post-treatment semi-structured interviews with cancer survivors who were randomized to the acupuncture group in a clinical trial for the treatment of insomnia. Survivors were categorized into Responders and Non-Responders to acupuncture treatment based on the change in the Insomnia Severity Index with a reduction of eight points or greater as the cut-off for the response. An integrated approach to data analysis was utilized by merging an a priori set of codes derived from the key ideas and a set of codes that emerged from the data through a grounded theory approach. Codes were examined for themes and patterns.


Among 28 cancer survivors interviewed, 18 (64%) were classified as Responders. Participants perceived the ability to respond to acupuncture as dependent on treatment that effectively: (1) alleviated co-morbidities contributing to insomnia, (2) supported sleep hygiene practices, and (3) provided a durable therapeutic effect. Acupuncture treatment that did not address one of these themes often detracted from positive treatment outcomes and diminished perceived benefit from acupuncture.

Significance of results

We identified patient-perceived contributors to response to acupuncture, such as co-morbid medical conditions, adequate support for sleep hygiene practices, and temporary therapeutic relief. Addressing these factors may improve the overall effectiveness of acupuncture for insomnia.

Original Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

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Presentation: Accepted for poster presentation at the Society for Integrative Oncology 2018 15th International Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, October 27, 2018.



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