How shiatsu could help those with chronic pain get a better night’s sleep

Watch above: Local researchers say an ancient therapy could offer people with chronic pain who have trouble sleeping, get some rest. Su-Ling Goh reports.

EDMONTON – It’s estimated up to 80 per cent of people who live with chronic pain have trouble falling and staying asleep. But a new study out of the University of Alberta is hoping to ease their pain with an ancient form of therapy.

Nancy Cheyne has lived with chronic joint pain since the mid-1970s, after she was in a car accident.

“My shoulder, my hips, my knees, my ankles. It’s everywhere.”

Cheyne’s pain has gotten increasingly worse over the years and has progressed so much she now has trouble walking. Cheyne says getting to sleep at night also causes her troubles.

“If I get to sleep by 1:30 in the morning, that’s good. And I’m up at 5:30,” she says. “It’s always interrupted sleep.”

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Dr. Cary Brown, a researcher in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the U of A, says sleep can be somewhat of a vicious cycle for those with chronic pain.

“If you’re not getting enough sleep, your sensitivity to pain is going to rise. And if you’re having pain, your ability to sleep is going to go down.”

Looking for a practical, non-invasive, low-cost treatment that people could do on their own, U of A researchers began a small pilot study on self-administered shiatsu. The Japanese therapy involves using your fingers to apply pressure to certain points on the body.

“It requires very specific pressure applied to key points,” Brown explains. “The person has to concentrate on what they’re doing and where they are doing it and how long they hold the position.”

Brown believes when people are concentrating on shiatsu it helps take their mind off the pain, helping them fall asleep easier.

“People with pain, often times, they have trouble falling asleep because they’re thinking about negative things that have happened,” she says. “If we can substitute that thought with something else that’s not negative, but still requires concentration, it should help them transition into sleep.”

Cheyne was one of nine participants in Brown’s pilot who tried shiatsu every night for eight weeks. Brown says most people found they were able to fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer periods of time.

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“I used to be up every half an hour to 40 minutes,” says Cheyne. “And now I’m sleeping even sometimes two hours without having to get up.”

And after trying upwards of seven different sleep medications, Cheyne says the best results have come from shiatsu, without the side effects that come along with medication.

“It’s just been a Godsend,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a miracle.’ It was fabulous.”

The research team hopes to follow up with a larger, more controlled study.

With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News.

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