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Acupuncture for Addiction?

Some swear by acupuncture as a treatment for withdrawal, while others claim it’s a waste of time and money. Who's right about this prickly issue?

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By Veronica Reynolds

03/25/11

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For roughly the past decade, the recovery community has depended on a wide variety of Eastern methods to cure an assortment of ills. It’s thus no surprise that acupuncture has become a staple at many of the nation’s top treatment centers, where it’s said to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms and physical pain, cure insomnia, and even help soothe emotional problems. But does acupuncture really help recovering alcoholics and addicts? 

Not surprisingly, traditional Chinese medical practitioners such as Margot Gersh, who works at Promises Rehab in Malibu, are big believers. “Acupuncture is extremely effective in treating addiction,” she says. "It rebalances the person from day to day, which makes them feel a lot better. It also regulates their temperature so that they aren’t going through the sort of extreme temperature changes that people experience when they’re coming down.”

Instead of treating the whole body, as traditional Chinese acupuncture does, auricular acupuncture--the kind that’s typically used in treating addiction--targets three to five specific needle points on the ear. These points address parts of the body, like the kidney, lung and liver, that are weakened over time from drug use. Adherents claim that auricular acupuncture also opens up blocked meridians (lines of energy that are said to run throughout the body) so that a patient’s chi (your life force--not the Starbuck's beverage) can flow freely.

But all this talk of life forces and balance can predictably make many mainstream medical professionals scoff. Dr. Stephen Barrett, a North Carolina psychiatrist who operates a site dedicated to calling out misleading medical practices, is a leading skeptic. “Acupuncture has no practical significance in terms of treating addicts,” he says. “It makes no sense to think that sticking a needle in somebody’s body will affect how they will manage their life.”

So what does science say? Results are mixed. A study by researchers at Yale University in 2000 found that nearly 55% of cocaine addicts in a group treated by having auricular acupuncture needles inserted in specific parts of the outer ear tested clean during their last week of treatment, as opposed to only 23.5% in the group that did not. (The patients were also all engaged in other forms of treatment, including psychotherapy, group therapy and 12-step programs; acupuncture was the only variable.)

But a major study published in 2002 in the Journal of the American Medical Association by docs at Yale, UCLA, Columbia, and other top academic centers came up with less enthusiastic acupuncture data. The study compared three "relaxation" techniques--acupuncture that was said to hit the right addiction spots versus acupuncture that did not hit these spots (this was the control) versus a "calming" video--among 600 coke addicts. While all three groups reduced their intake of cocaine, there was no difference on the crucial standard of retention or the duration of treatment, which is generally viewed as the best predictor of sustained recovery. Numerous studies of acupuncture for heroin users found that it helped them with the symptoms of withdrawal but didn't reduce relapse rates.

Sometimes the results may be less physical than emotional.  Jim, a 51-year-old ex-con who received regular acupuncture treatments during his three months at the Circle Program at the Colorado Mental Health Institute, credits acupuncture with his newfound sobriety and claims he’s no longer the angry, emotionless man he used to be. “The more I did it, the more I was able to get in touch with my feelings,” he says. “I literally just started crying after the treatments. It’s highly unusual for me to let my guard down like that.”

While being a human pin cushion may sound painful, practitioners say that the needles don’t hurt. In fact they can do the opposite, helping some patients to relieve the pain they’ve grappled with for years. Morgon, a 28-year-old former crack addict who lives in Los Angeles and has been sober for four years, used to feel “like I had been hit by a truck every morning. Her back pain was so bad that “I couldn’t walk and would collapse if I stood up.” But once she got sober and started a regular acupuncture regimen, her ailments disappeared. “Acupuncture took away my problems completely,” she says. Of course, giving up her daily crack habit probably didn’t hurt.

Dr. Elizabeth Stuyt, the medical director for the addiction recovery division at the Colorado Mental Health Institute, conducted her own study on the effectiveness of auricular acupuncture, published in the Journal of Dual Diagnosis in 2006. She found that 61% of the patients who participated in biweekly acupuncture sessions completed their entire treatment program, compared to only 32% of the acupuncture abstainers. The acupuncture also helped reduce insomnia and alleviate feelings of anger and aggression. However, the study doesn't prove that the success of Stuyt’s patients was directly caused by acupuncture (rather than some combination of group therapy, 12-step meetings and other forms of treatment). 

The jury's still out on whether acupuncture improves recovery rates for addicts. But there's no way it can hurt. And it just may work in a pinch.

Veronica Reynolds is the Executive Editor of the WooMe, the world's largest online video dating site, and has contributed articles to AllFacebook. She also writes for the Yogi Times.

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