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Do acupuncture treatments help support sobriety in individuals who are recovering from drugs and alcohol? If you or a loved one is currently in recovery or receiving treatment for substance abuse, it is natural to be curious about the benefits of holistic therapies, including acupuncture.

Drug treatment centers are increasingly incorporating acupuncture into the detoxification process to help clients manage their withdrawal symptoms and better position themselves for long-term sobriety success. Over the last decade, numerous research studies have sought to better understand the science behind acupuncture and drug treatment.

While further scientific research is still necessary to fully understand how acupuncture aids the detoxification and withdrawal process, this holistic treatment may be just the lifeline some patients need to successful move forward in their recovery from substance abuse.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a Traditional Chinese medical technique that has been used for centuries to treat a variety of health ailments. According to Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a technique for balancing the body’s life force, known as the qi (pronounced “chee”), which is believed to flow through energy pathways known as meridians.

Blockages in the meridians affect the qi’s ability to circulate freely through the body, leading to health problems. Traditional Chinese medicine uses acupuncture as a means for eliminating these blockages and restoring proper energy flow, which supports whole body health.

Today, western medicine has found that the Traditional Chinese concept of the “qi” is actually very similar to our understanding of the central nervous system. Whereas Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners used long, thin needles to stimulate the “qi”, today scientists believe that these needles are actually stimulating the body’s complex system of nerves, muscles and connective tissues. This stimulation increases blood flow and enhances levels of the body’s natural painkillers, including endorphins.

In recent decades, acupuncture has increasingly been used side-by-side with Western medicine to relieve pain, manage migraine headaches, relieve nausea in chemotherapy patients, alleviate stress and anxiety, reduce feelings of depression, and enhance whole body health. According to the Mayo Clinic, each person who performs acupuncture has a unique style, typically blending Easter and Western approaches. Most acupuncture treatments last between 30 and 45 minutes.

During a treatment session, long, thin needles are inserted at specific trigger points along the body that correspond to different ailments. The needles used during acupuncture treatments are sterile and extremely thin; you may feel a mild prick as they enter the body, but in general, acupuncture treatments are painless.

The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) was formally established in 1985 to standardize the education and training of clinicians in ear acupuncture protocol. According to NADA, ear acupuncture is an adjunct therapy that is “clinically effective, cost-efficient, drug-free, and compatible cross-culturally.”

More than 1,000 programs in the United States and Canada offer acupuncture as part of their treatment protocol for stress reduction in individuals who are in recovery from substance abuse and addiction. NADA recommends ear acupuncture in conjunction with behavior health and addiction recovery programs, including AA and NA. According to NADA, ear acupuncture benefits include:

  • Reduce craving for alcohol and drugs, as well as nicotine
  • Minimized withdrawal symptoms
  • Increased calmness, better sleep, less agitation

How Can Acupuncture Support Drug Recovery?

In order to understand how acupuncture may be able to supports the drug recovery process, it is important to understand the physiological basis for drug addiction. Many drugs of abuse, such as cocaine, affect the brain’s natural ability to manage dopamine levels. These drugs trigger a surge in dopamine, leading to an exhilarating and highly addictive rush.

With repeated drug administration, the brain becomes unable to regulate its own dopamine levels, and eventually shuts down its own production. Consequently, withdrawal effects can be extremely intense as the body is without a means for experiencing any pleasure. In essence, the brain needs a “kickstart” to return to normal levels of dopamine production and management.

Consequently, drug detox can be especially difficult and painful. Common withdrawal symptoms include abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, tremors, seating, muscle aches, anxiety, and insomnia. Additionally, individuals must contend with strong physiological cravings for their drug of choice.

Traditionally, treatment for withdrawal symptoms during the detox process has focused on alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, agitation, sweating, cramping and muscle aches through the administration of different drugs. However, the use of drugs to treat withdrawal symptoms during detox is not always possible, especially for programs that are entirely “drug-free”. Acupuncture, then, is increasingly seen as an alternative treatment option for managing these symptoms.

The scientific reasons for this are complex. Studies indicate that acupuncture may play a role in the regulation of the brain’s neurotransmitters and biochemical balance. For example, studies have found that areas of the brain responsible for the regulation and management of serotonin are associated with the analgesic effects of acupuncture treatment.

According to a 2008 study published in the journal “Evidenced Based Complementary Alternative Medicine”, additional research is necessary to fully understand the role of acupuncture in activating different neurotransmitter systems. However, preliminary findings are clear that acupuncture can help support patients during drug recovery by alleviating cravings and other negative withdrawal side effects.

Acupuncture in Practice: Relieving Withdrawal Symptoms & Support Recovery

While many different styles of acupuncture are currently practiced, studies find that ear acupuncture is most effective for relieving withdrawal symptoms and supporting the recovery process. Ear acupuncture, also known as auricular acupuncture, target three to five specific needle points on the ear that are linked to the kidney, lungs and liver, organs that long-term drug use can damage and weaken.

Ear acupuncture is designed to address the following points:

  1. Autonomic Point, which calms the nervous system and promotes overall relaxation
  2. Shen Men or “spirit gate,” which reduces anxiety and nervousness
  3. Kidney Point, which calms fears and helps internal organs heal
  4. Liver Point, which supports the detoxification and blood purification, helps to quell aggression
  5. Lung Point, which promotes aeration and helps clients let go of grief

At SATU (Substance Abuse Treatment Unit), Connecticut Mental Health Center’s premier clinic for individuals with substance abuse disorders, clients receive five-point ear acupuncture as part of the detox recovery process. Since the clinic’s goal is for patients to be entirely drug free, maintenance drugs (e.g., methadone) are not available.

Acupuncture treatments are frequently incorporated into comprehensive treatment programs. Katurah Bryant, RN, LMFT is the Associate Director of SATU and the founder and supervisor of the clinic’s acupuncture program. Bryant stresses that acupuncture treatments alone are not a cure for addiction, but “one tool in the tool belt for recovery that we’re trying to get clients to establish for themselves.” (5)

The treatment lasts for 30 minutes. Clients sit in soft, black chairs in a dim room; many close their eyes and fall into a meditative sleep, according to Bryant. Bryant feels very strongly that ear acupuncture offers important benefits for her clients and is a critical part of the successful recovery process.

Scientific findings, however, are mixed on the effectiveness of acupuncture. A study by researchers at Yale University in 2000 found that 55% of cocaine addicts treated with auricular acupuncture tested clean during the last week of treatment – compared with 23.%% in the group who did not receive auricular acupuncture. All patients had also participated in group therapy, a 12-step program and psychotherapy.

On the flip side, a 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) compared acupuncture treatment with other relaxation techniques, including watching a “calming video”. 600 cocaine addicts were split into three different groups: one receiving acupuncture treatments for the correct spots on the ear, one receiving a placebo acupuncture treatment of random spots (not those linked to specific organs); and one group that watched a calming video. All groups reduced their heroin intake, but no single treatment was statistically more successful than any other in achieving this reduction.

It’s possible, however, that these studies may be measuring the wrong things. While a reduction in relapse rates is certainly important, there are other factors at play, too, which can affect long-term sobriety success. Anecdotal evidence from former addicts indicates that acupuncture treatments are critical for helping these individuals let go of past hurt, anger and resentment that may have fueled their drug use.

Jim, a 51-year old ex-con told reporters that he credits acupuncture treatments with his sobriety and for helping him get in touch with his feelings. “The more I did it (acupuncture treatments), the more I was able to get in touch with his feelings,” said Jim. “I literally just started crying after the treatments.

It’s highly unusual for me to let my guard down like that.” Morgan, a 28-year-old former crack addict says that she used to feel like she had been “hit by a truck” every morning, but that acupuncture “took away my problems completely”. While acupuncture may not work for everyone, it’s clear that it has made a significant impact on the quality of life for many program participants – helping individuals manage their withdrawal systems and supporting their efforts to steer clear from future drug use.

Acupuncture & Addiction Treatment: Next Steps

Acupuncture may play an important role in the successful detox and recovery from substance abuse. To learn more about the benefits of acupuncture treatment, including what to expect and whether you or a loved one would be a good candidate, talk to an addiction specialist who specializes in holistic treatments.

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Acupuncture in the Detoxification Process
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