Healthcare workers who do overnight shift work commonly suffer from shift work disorder – or SWD.
Nearly 20% of nurses who work overnight develop the disorder, which includes chronic sleepiness, regular drowsiness, and changes in hormone levels, body temperatures, alertness, and hunger.
Because the disorder arises from interruptions in the sleep-wake cycle and the resulting disruption to circadian rhythms, the easiest way to treat SWD is to maintain a normal sleep schedule. Unfortunately, many healthcare workers’ careers depend on working at least some overnight shifts or at least working irregular hours. Researchers are therefore looking into other ways to overcome symptoms of SWD that can allow shift workers to continue their work without suffering physical and mental health consequences.
A research team has just proposed a protocol to investigate the potential power of acupuncture to treat symptoms of SWD. Specifically, the researchers plan to investigate whether undergoing an evidence-based 4-week acupuncture treatment program will improve cognitive functioning as well as functional connectivity amongst brain structures – as measured through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – in those with SWD.
The research into the value of acupuncture in SWD will build on other research into the best ways to address SWD in those who want to continue their shift work. For example, a recent study showed that both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and sleep hygiene interventions that involve educating people on the ways to promote healthy, constructive sleep are effective ways to improve symptoms associated with SWD.
In this study, research participants were 83 shift workers who received either group-based CBT, self-help CBT, or a sleep hygiene intervention and were evaluated before and after treatment, as well as 6 months later. The results showed that each of these intervention strategies reduced the shift workers’ perceived insomnia severity, improved their burnout symptoms, and made them feel more restful and that they were able to recover from their shift work faster. In addition, actigraphy data demonstrated that these workers slept more total hours following their sleep intervention.
While there were no significant differences in the success of these 3 interventions, CBT appeared to be slightly better than the sleep hygiene intervention at improving mood-related symptoms. Information on how acupuncture may compare with these other techniques for helping shift workers improve their sleep and quality of life will add to our arsenal of tools to empower healthcare workers to continue pursuing the careers they love while engaging in critical self-care activities.
Jarnefelt, H. et al. (2020). Cognitive behavioural therapy interventions for insomnia among shift workers: RCT in an occupational health setting. Int Arch Occup Environ Health, 93(5), 535-550.
Ning, Y. et al. (2020). The fMRI study for acupuncture on shift work sleep disorder: Study protocol for a randomized controlled neuroimaging trial. Medicine (Baltimore), 99(36), e22068