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How Can Acupuncture Help Rehabilitations Programs?

East truly meets West when addiction treatment programs include the ancient practice of acupuncture. While research on how acupuncture relieves symptoms is limited, patients who benefit from the practice believe it is valuable.

Understanding how acupuncture fits into addiction treatment requires a look at the components of a treatment plan. For example, addiction programs often use four pillars of care:

  • Individual counseling sessions
  • Group counseling sessions
  • Support group meetings
  • Medication management

All the treatment components work together to help patients build a sober life. These pillars of care are not, however, the only forms of care provided. In fact, most programs offer a menu of treatments to their patients, depending on their needs and their experiences. One such treatment sometimes available is acupuncture. This ancient treatment benefits some people in recovery, but others may not see the same success. Deciding to try acupuncture is a deeply personal decision and may rely on a patient’s willingness to explore experimental possibilities.

The Theory

Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine. Practitioners believe the body is made up of two separate forces that must be held in balance at all times: the yin and the yang. When these two elements are out of balance, the flow of energy (or qi) throughout the body is blocked, and illness results. Acupuncture strives to balance yin and yang, and therefore allow qi to flow freely, by stimulating specific portions of the body (known as meridians) through which qi flows.[1]

Some sources suggest there are between 14 and 20 meridian channels in the body, which can lead to at least 2,000 points to be targeted through acupuncture. Acupuncturists stimulate these meridians by placing tiny needles in the skin at specific acupuncture pressure points. Sometimes the needles are stimulated with electric pulses, known as electro-acupuncture.[2]

Western medicine doesn’t commonly accept the presence of yin, yang or qi, so researchers attempt to provide other explanations for why the practice might be helpful. The Alternative Medicine Foundation suggests acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals that cause a chain reaction tolower pain sensitivity and increase relaxation. Slowly, as more research is conducted, acupuncture gains acceptance as an effective treatment for a variety of problems that plague people across the globe.[3]

Addiction and Acupuncture

Acupuncture was first introduced to addiction treatment programs in the 1970s when Dr. Wen of Hong Kong proposed acupuncture points in four points in the body and two points in the ear. The practice helped patients with opioid withdrawal symptoms.[4]Such alternatives to medication are popular for some patients who want to manage the uncomfortable and often painful symptoms of opiate withdrawal. An alternative treatment like acupuncture is attractive to patients who want to avoid any side effects from opioid replacement medications or want to overcome addictions naturally without the use of any drugs.

The research about acupuncture’s effectiveness doesn’t always show a clear gain – not everyone benefits from the procedure. For example, a 2002 study found patients who received acupuncture in the proper meridians did no better on addiction scores than those who received acupuncture in other areas, or no acupuncture at all.[5] While such studies indicate acupuncture may not be helpful in treating addiction, certainstudy flaws could skew results. First, meridians aren’t an exact science, since Eastern medicine doesn’t agree on how many there are. Patients who receive treatments in accepted meridians and patients who receive treatments in other points might be getting the same treatment. Also, it’s hard to tell the proper point to place the needles. In addition, the study offered limited psychosocial counseling. Even most proponents believe acupuncture should be used along with more complete treatments.[6]

Also, acupuncture may work better for treating some addiction symptoms than for treating the psychological reasons to use. One study connected the use of electro-acupuncture with reduced cravings for opiates. Researchers believe the electrical stimulation of the acupuncture produced more hormones in the body (endorphin and encephalin), which affects a person’s system in such a way to lower cravings for opiates. Good research into the effectiveness of electro-acupuncture is hard to achieve, however, and more studies are needed to understand the ways acupuncture treatssymptoms.[7]

Many acupuncture studies struggle with design problems or small sample sizes that make it hard to draw reasonable conclusions. For now, it’s safest to suggest some people benefit from acupuncture when it is provided in conjunction with a comprehensive addiction treatment program.

On the other hand, studies on the efficacy of acupuncture for pain control demonstrate some people do benefit from regular acupuncture sessions. For example, the National Institutes of Health reports acupuncture helps treat painful conditions such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Low back injuries
  • Osteoarthritis of the knee
  • Pain related to post-traumatic stress disorder

Current research also suggests patients who expect to see improvement from acupuncture experience the biggest impact from it.[8]

Who Might Benefit?

Many people with chronic pain conditions develop addictions as they try to manage their symptoms on a daily basis. When they enter addiction treatment programs, they still have pain, but they need alternatives to opiate painkillers to assist with pain control. These patients benefit from acupuncture techniques, as they allow them to handle pain without painkillers.

Acupuncture also may benefit people with anxiety disorders. The treatments soothe and calm, and many people report they feel deeply relaxed both during a session and after a session is complete. For people in addiction programs, this is beneficial. The withdrawal process causes deep anxieties to surface and learning to live without drugs forces some patients to face painful issues they’ve avoided in the past. Acupuncture is a helpful way to assist patients with the mental struggles they face.[9]

Obtaining Care

Acupuncture is a relatively safe treatment that doesn’t cause severe side effects. Still, patients should watch out to ensure they’re getting the best care possible. For example, acupuncture sessions should begin with clean needles never used before, and the skin should be cleaned before the needles are placed. Using unclean needles, or passing needles through contaminated skin, leads to infection. In addition, the person who performs the acupuncture session should be certified and licensed to perform the procedure. Licensing requirements vary from state to state, but most acupuncturists are happy to reveal their educational backgrounds and work experience on request.8

Acupuncture is a complementary treatment used to augment a patient’s overall addiction treatment plan. The acupuncturist must know the patient’s history and any other treatments, and then provide care that improves the efficacy of those treatments. Most acupuncturists who work within addiction treatment facilities know how to do this quite well, but acupuncturists in the community might not be as accustomed to this practice. Individuals who try to convince a person to use acupuncture as their only addiction treatment are advocating a plan with no scientific backing.

If you’d like to learn more, and hear about our success stories, please contact us today at The Canyon.

The Canyon is a premier sanctuary of healing and offers a complete continuum of care that allows each client to build a lasting foundation of recovery. Call us if you'd like to learn how we can create that environment for you. 424-387-3118


[1] Acupuncture Today. (2016). Yin and Yang Theory. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://www.acupuncturetoday.com/abc/yinyang.php.

[2] Beijing Huangshu Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital. (2009). Outpatient Treatments: Acupuncture. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016.

[3] Alternative Medicine Foundation. (2010). Acupuncture. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://www.amfoundation.org/acupuncture.htm.

[4]Cui, C.L., Wu, L.Z. & Luo, F. (2008). Acupuncture for the Treatment of Drug Addiction. Neurochemical Research. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11064-008-9784-8.

[5] Margolin, Arthur; Kleber, Herbert D.; Avants, S. Kelly; et al. (2002). Acupuncture for the Treatment of Cocaine Addiction. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/194524.

[6] Interlandi, Jeneen. (2016). Value of Acupuncture. Scientific American. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/research-casts-doubt-on-the-value-of-acupuncture/.

[7] Wu, Sharon LY; Leung, Albert Wing-Nang and Yew, David Tai-Wai. (2016). Acupuncture for detoxification in treatment of opioid addiction. East Asian Archives of Psychiatry. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=170546030151901;res=IELHEA.

[8] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Acupuncture: In Depth. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction#hed3.

[9] Bergdahl, L.; Berman, A.H.; and Haglund, K. (2012). Patients’ experience of auricular acupuncture during protracted withdrawal. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jpm.12028/full.

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