Acupuncture for Addiction Treatment

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves strategically placing needles in areas of the skin to promote healing1. Addiction specialists may use acupuncture as part of a complementary medicine treatment program. Some of the reported benefits of acupuncture for addiction treatment include:

  • relieving withdrawal symptoms
  • preventing the cravings for drugs
  • increasing the rate of participation in drug treatment programs

Acupuncture and addiction treatment have coincided together for so long that there is even a National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA), which offers training programs to doctors and various substance abuse treatment professionals.

More and more addiction treatment programs are offering acupuncture to their clients as part of a push toward holistic addiction therapy4. This involves taking a mind-body approach to addiction treatment.

What Is Acupuncture?

Eastern medicine practitioners have used acupuncture for thousands of years. The practice is based on the belief that within the body, there are opposing forces, which are also known as yin and yang. When these are balanced, a person is said to feel healthy and well. When they are imbalanced, a person can experience anxiety, fear, pain, and other unwanted symptoms.

Acupuncturists believe that by inserting and therefore stimulating specific points on the skin, they can manipulate and restore balance. Some Eastern practitioners may call this energy force “Qi” or “chi.” The practitioners believe there are specific areas called meridians that flow from point to point. They have identified 365 points where needles can be inserted to help with various ailments.

How Acupuncture Effects Neurotransmitters

Some studies have found that acupuncture stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters may be helpful in reducing pain and anxiety while enhancing an overall feeling of well-being. Examples of the neurotransmitters potentially affected include: 

Dopamine:

Doctors believe that dopamine is increased in addictions to cocaine, alcohol, and morphine. When released in large amounts, dopamine can give a person feelings of euphoria and pleasure. Withdrawal from drugs creates a reduced flow of dopamine, which can cause symptoms such as intense drug cravings, depression, and sadness in those who struggle with addiction.

Endorphins:

Several studies have found that acupuncture causes the release of endorphins, which are pain-relieving chemicals present in the body. The presence of endorphins is thought to be the main mechanism by which acupuncture benefits those in recovery.

Serotonin:

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with helping feelings of calmness. Additional serotonin in the body is also thought to reduce the incidence of depression and anxiety, which is why many anti-depressant medications focus on increasing the amount of available serotonin in the body.

Other neurotransmitters that may play a role in helping those suffering from addiction overcome their disorder include serotonin, catecholamines, and amino acids.

How Does Acupuncture for Addiction Treatment Work?

Acupuncture in treating addiction may vary based on the practitioner. However, NADA has established a specific five-point practice that involves accessing acupuncture points in the ear. Because the needles are inserted into the ear only, this treatment can be easily performed at many addiction facilities in a group or personal setting.

A standard acupuncture session may go something like this5:

  • A person will meet with the acupuncturist, who will ask them to sign paperwork and discuss their overall health history. They can discuss the specific areas they may wish to address in their acupuncture session.
  • A person will usually wear loose, comfortable clothing. Shorts and a t-shirt are an excellent combination because there are many acupuncture points around the elbows and knees. You may be asked to lie down on a massage table, depending on the approach.
  • An acupuncturist will insert the small, thin needles at designated areas of the skin. Ideally, you will not move excessively during a treatment, but some movement is often permitted. If a needle insertion site is particularly uncomfortable, you are often encouraged to let the acupuncturist know.
  • A person will usually rest and relax (sometimes even fall asleep) for about 25 minutes. An acupuncturist will then remove the needles after this time. They will usually encourage a person to drink plenty of water following their treatment.

Some people voice feeling a sense of intense energy or calm after an acupuncture treatment. Others may only experience this feeling as they continue to receive treatments.

What Does the Research Say About Acupuncture and Addiction Treatment?

Some researchers have studied acupuncture specifically as an addiction treatment. One of the commonly targeted areas is known as the “Shenman” auricular point as well as two to three other nearby points2.

Treatment for Addiction to Heroin

Many of the studies related to acupuncture and addiction have targeted acupuncture as a treatment for specific drug addictions. One example is heroin. According to Medscape, a study found that electroacupuncture (the delivery of electric current through acupuncture needles) was helpful in reducing withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin addiction.

Treatment for Addiction to Alcohol

Another study found that electroacupuncture specifically at point ST36 reduced alcohol drinking behavior in rats, according to Medscape. The researchers theorized that acupuncture stimulated increased amounts of dopamine, which could help a person better overcome the dopamine loss that could occur with alcohol withdrawals.

Dissent Among Research

Not all studies support the use of acupuncture as an addiction treatment. A study published in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” from 2002 studied 620 cocaine-dependent adults who either used solely cocaine or cocaine along with other opiates. Patients were assigned to one of the following categories: 1, auricular (in or around the ear) acupuncture, 2, needle-insertion control that didn’t specifically use acupuncture points, or 3, a relaxation method.

Participants received their chosen interventions five times a week for a period of eight weeks. They also received drug counseling. At the end of the study, the study’s authors did not find any differences in the reduction in cocaine use by treatment group. However, the authors did find that participants overall did reduce their cocaine usage.

What Are Other Uses for Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is commonly used in the treatment of chronic pain syndromes, according to the National Institutes of Health. Examples of these include:

Lower back pain: A 2012 study found that acupuncture was more effective in treating lower back pain than no treatment at all. Some experts recommend using acupuncture as a complement to other non-opioid, non-drug approaches to pain reduction.

Neck pain: Several small-scale studies have found that acupuncture is more helpful for neck pain than no acupuncture at all or in simulated acupuncture.

Knee pain: Studies have found that acupuncture for knee pain is more helpful than no acupuncture at all for knee pain.

Headache: Acupuncturists have found success in using acupuncture to treat headaches. However, results have been mixed regarding treating migraine headaches.

What Kind of Training Does a Person Need to Perform Acupuncture?

State credentialing for acupuncturists may vary. Some states may require acupuncturists to earn specific licensure, registration, or certification to practice. A common certifying organization is the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

In addition to an individual acupuncture practitioner, some medical specialists learn acupuncture and offer it in addition to other services. For example, some dentists and general medical practitioners offer acupuncture.

Questions to Ask Before Acupuncture

Regardless of the acupuncturist, it’s best to ask a few questions before agreeing to acupuncture treatments. Examples of these include:

  • What kind of training do you have in acupuncture?
  • What is your experience in acupuncture? Do you specialize in particular services?
  • How do you clean your needles and other instruments used?
  • How many treatments do you think I will require for my condition? (Sometimes a person may also opt to receive acupuncture treatments for conditions outside of their addiction, such as back pain).

In addition to these questions, you may wish to ask if the acupuncturist accepts certain insurance plans. Some insurance companies will pay for a portion of an acupuncturist’s services as part of a complementary health service. You may also wish to contact your insurance company prior to receiving an acupuncturist’s services to determine if any portion of them is covered.

Conclusions About Acupuncture for Addiction Treatment

Acupuncture for addiction is intended as a complementary therapy for addiction. This means the treatment isn’t the only one a person should use when they are trying to overcome a drug and alcohol addiction. Instead, it can be a part of a larger drug and alcohol treatment program. Although researchers haven’t conclusively said that acupuncture helps those struggling with addiction, there are several research studies that do support its use. Finding an experienced and certified practitioner can be a step in the right direction for a person looking to expand their addiction treatment options.

Is Acupuncture Safe?

Fear over needle insertion is one of the most commonly cited reasons why those suffering from drug addiction may fail to seek acupuncture treatment in the United States3. However, acupuncture is very safe when a trained person provides the treatment. The needles are often very fine, sharp, and not inserted to significant depths to cause pain. What is most important in terms of safety is that a practitioner uses careful practices to clean the needles. Many organizations will use a cleaning method called an autoclave, which uses extremely high heats to destroy any types of bacteria or other pathogens.

Where Can I Find Acupuncture for Addiction Treatment?

Acupuncture for addiction is offered in many substance abuse clinics in the United States, Europe, and beyond. Auricular acupuncture specifically is often used in court-mandated drug treatment programs as well.