One very interesting way acupuncture is being used here in the west is treating withdrawal and detoxification from substances such as tobacco, alcohol, legal and illegal narcotics.
The story begins around 1973, with publication of the first study of the therapeutic potential of acupuncture for addiction. The study was prompted by the experience of a Hong Kong neurosurgeon who was experimenting with preoperative acupuncture as an adjunct to surgical anesthesia. Unexpectedly, patients volunteered that their cravings for addictive substances (heroin, morphine, opium, nicotine, and alcohol) lessened when they were receiving the acupuncture treatments.
Intrigued by this phenomenon, researchers explored and developed various acupuncture approaches over the following years. By 1985, the first “detox protocol” was established. In 1989, a fully randomized, blinded, and placebo-controlled study (in fact, it’s one of the best-designed clinical studies of acupuncture in the literature) confirmed the efficacy of acupuncture in treating severe alcoholism.
It is now a well-established and much-publicized part of the acupuncture repertoire. Many people trying to free themselves from addictions seek out the assistance of an acupuncturist on their own. In some cases, acupuncture is part of a court-ordered treatment program for addicts. In others, such as Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., it’s a major-component of a voluntary outpatient program.
Beside that fact that it can be effective, acupuncture for addiction-withdrawal is a simple treatment and easy for both practitioner and patient to accommodate. The most commonly used protocol, The NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) consists of five points needled in each ear which are left in for up an hour. At the discretion of the acupuncturists, other points on the ear or the body may be added.
This type of treatment can be performed while the patient is seated comfortably, with minimal inconvenience to the patient and acupuncturist. It’s both possible and practical to administer “group” treatments to individuals taking part in support programs and meetings. Moreover, this type of acupuncture is safe to administer to pregnant women or infants undergoing narcotic withdrawal.
The frequency of the visits depends upon the individual patient, the severity of the addiction and the patient’s circumstances. A highly motivated, employed patient with good support resources might require three visits the first week, two the second, and one or two a week thereafter. A patient with different circumstances, perhaps unemployed and with a complex, challenging psychosocial environment, will probably need daily visits as part of a multidisciplinary program, and some time to fully address the many dimensions of his problem. Most patients fall somewhere between these two extremes.
It is important to note that acupuncture alone is inadequate to fully address the complex of addiction-withdrawal. A good practitioner must also take into account the psychological, social and motivational environment of the patient and provide appropriate support and guidance.
Auricular acupuncture, or “ear” acupuncture is a subsystem of acupuncture theory, which allows the practitioner to influence most systems and organs of the body via their corresponding points in the ear. Some of these ear points, such as Shen Men in the illustration, refer to conceptual constructs of Chinese Medicine which have no analog in Western allopathic medicine. It is not uncommon for an acupuncturist to combine ear and body points within the context of a single treatment.