Insomnia is a common problem in cancer survivors. In women previously treated for breast cancer, for example, approximately one-third are diagnosed with insomnia. Sufferers of insomnia can have difficulty falling asleep, and they awaken often during the night, only to find themselves unable to get back to sleep. This can lead to tiredness, low energy levels, difficulty with concentration, and mood disturbances.
Insomnia is often treated with medications, but the best treatment has generally been considered to be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT combines cognitive therapy (a type of psychotherapy where unhelpful thought patterns are challenged in order to change behavior) with better habits, including relaxation in the evening and avoiding stimuli. CBT is better than medications in treating insomnia, but CBT can be hard to access, due to cost and availability of psychotherapists.
There is a new option that holds promise for treating insomnia, a form of Tai Chi called Tai Chi Chih (TCC). TCC combines slow, deliberate physical movements with relaxation and mediation, and is termed a 'movement meditation'. TCC has been shown to help with insomnia in older adults, and also improves depression and fatigue.
In a new study published last week, researchers from UCLA compared CBT (the current 'best treatment' for insomnia) with TCC in a group of breast cancer survivors with insomnia. This was a randomized study, where women were assigned at random to one of two groups: one group received CBT, and the other received TCC. Randomized studies are important in medicine, because they allow for the most unbiased comparison between two treatment approaches. The UCLA researchers used a special study design where they wanted to show that TCC was not worse than CBT. If successful, it would mean that there are two 'gold standard' treatments for insomnia, CBT and TCC.
The TCC approach used in the study was based on a TCC program described in the book T'ai Chi Chih! Joy Thru Movement by Justin Stone. It consisted of weekly sessions, two hours long, and lasted 3 months in total.
Ninety women entered the study and were allocated to one of the two groups. In the CBT group, 44% showed an insomnia treatment response by 15 months. In the TCC group, the corresponding number was 47%. The two groups showed similar improvements in other measures, such as sleep quality.
We can conclude that TCC is essentially just as good as CBT. Although this study looked only at breast cancer survivors, it's reasonable to assume that the benefits would be seen in survivors of other types of cancer, especially since TCC has been previously shown to be helpful in other settings.
If you are a cancer survivor suffering from insomnia, TCC might be worth a try.