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Acupuncture, which involves inserting a thin needle at various points on the skin, is a a complementary or holistic treatment commonly used in substance addiction recovery programs. As a complementary intervention, it is combined with traditional addiction methods, such as psychotherapy and behavioral therapies, to treat the whole person. Many studies have demonstrated the efficacy of acupuncture as a strategy for treating drug addiction and alcohol addiction.1
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that originated in ancient China in the 14th century and is based on the concept that the human body has pathways flowing through it. This is similar to the circulatory system that carries blood throughout the body—but instead of circulating blood, these pathways, or meridians, carry energy that is responsible for overall health. Disrupting this energy flow is thought to cause disease.2
Traditional Chinese medicine believed that the human body has more than 2,000 points at which the body’s energy could be accessed using acupuncture. These are called acupuncture points that are connected through the described pathways. The healthy human body has an unobstructed flow of energy. Acupuncture is designed to increase the normal flow of energy throughout the body and restore health.2
Acupuncture works through the insertion of needles into specific points in the body. These can either be manipulated by a professional, or a mild electrical stimulation can be applied to activate the process.2</sup.
While the Chinese have used acupuncture for centuries, it has only recently become a more common practice in Western countries. Practitioners in the United States have used acupuncture to treat various medical conditions for more than 40 years, but it was not until 1994 that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized acupuncture as a medical treatment.3
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Chinese medicine describes the process of acupuncture as a way of balancing yin and yang energies. Acupuncture is reported to balance the flow of energy and life force in the body. It may affect the release of pain-relieving chemicals to alleviate pain and stress in the body.4
Acupuncture typically involves inserting needles into specific locations on the skin to increase the flow of energy, thereby alleviating pain or treating conditions, such as substance addiction.4
A professional trained in acupuncture inserts needles into specific locations and may apply electrical stimulation or use their hands to gently move the needle while it is inserted. Most people report experiencing a mild ache as the needle is inserted.4
The central nervous system may be activated through acupuncture by the release of chemicals into the spinal cord, muscles, and brain. The effect is to stimulate the body to promote emotional well-being and physical health.2
Auricular or Ear Acupuncture for Addiction Recovery
When performing acupuncture for addiction, thin needles are inserted into five different points, often the ear. These five points include:5
- Autonomic Point: Causes relaxation by calming the nervous system
- Shen Men: Decreases nervousness and anxiety
- Kidney Point: Heals vital organs and alleviates fears
- Liver Point: Removes toxins from the liver and reduces aggression
- Lung Point: Helps manage grief and improve lung function
It takes approximately 12 minutes to insert these needles. The patient sits quietly for 30 to 45 minutes in a dimly lit room. This creates an environment of peace and well-being that can increase calmness and relaxation.5
Acupuncture Use and Regulations
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles and requires that those who use them for acupuncture treatment must be licensed. Acupuncture needles must be sterile, nontoxic, and for single use only. All therapists must receive training and licensing in the methods of acupuncture.5
The practice of acupuncture is closely regulated to maintain the safety of its use by requiring certification for anyone wanting to provide acupuncture services in 46 states. The only states that do not require certification are Alabama, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wyoming.6
Studies completed through the National Institutes of Health indicate that acupuncture is effective when it is combined with other traditional therapies for a variety of conditions that include:2
- Lower back pain
With the strict regulations on acupuncture professionals and the needles that are used, safety is a high priority, and it is not recommended for people with certain conditions or risk factors.
For example, acupuncture is not recommended if you:1
- Have bleeding disorders or clotting issues: This can result in increased bleeding, especially if you are on a blood thinner.
- Have a pacemaker: Acupuncture may use mild electrical impulses that would contraindicate acupuncture with a pacemaker.
- Are pregnant: Acupuncture treatment could induce labor and cause premature delivery.
Where is Acupuncture for Addiction Used?
Acupuncture for addiction recovery is used at many holistic treatment centers. A holistic treatment center is a facility that offers a drug and alcohol addiction program that treats the whole person, which means focusing on their physical, emotional, and mental well-being in addiction recovery.7
In addition to holistic treatment centers, acupuncture services are also available at a variety of other addiction facilities, both inpatient and outpatient. Each treatment center establishes its own services, which may include acupuncture as a treatment component in addition to more traditional approaches that could include group counseling, family therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.8
How Can Acupuncture Help in Addiction Treatment?
Professionals who use acupuncture for drug addiction state that it can help in several ways, including:5
- Reducing cravings
- Easing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms
- Reducing physical pain
- Helping regulate emotions
- Decreasing anxiety and stress
- Helping regulate sleep
Currently, those involved in acupuncture treatment believe that acupuncture produces its positive effects through stimulating different systems in the body, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems.2
Substance use causes a surge in dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. The dopamine levels achieved by substance use tend to be much higher than those associated with natural rewards like food or sex, a mechanism which is responsible for repeated substance use.9
Acupuncture may reduce the positive feelings associated with taking drugs. This may happen through a change in the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain and a reduction in pleasure when you use drugs. When you don’t experience the euphoric high, you may be less likely to want to use substances in the future and you may notice your cravings have decreased.10
Changes in Neurotransmitter Levels
Acupuncture may affect different neurotransmitters that are involved in addiction. These include:10,11
- Dopamine: Stopping or reducing substance use typically causes a reduction in dopamine and can lead to anxiety, depression, and feelings of sadness, along with intense cravings. Acupuncture may help alleviate these feelings. Acupuncture is believed to increase dopamine, which can lead to improving mood and alleviating withdrawal symptoms.
- Endorphins: In addiction treatment, acupuncture appears to raise the level of endorphins—the body’s natural painkillers in the nervous system.
- Serotonin: The neurotransmitter serotonin creates feelings of calm in the body and reduces anxiety. Acupuncture may increase the production of serotonin.
Does Acupuncture Work for Addiction?
In terms of its effectiveness, people who receive acupuncture treatment typically report reductions in cravings for drugs along with relief from withdrawal symptoms. Users’ experiences with acupuncture for addiction treatment include several benefits, including:12
- Decreased substance use
- Anxiety relief
- Increased well-being
- Positive physical effects
Some negative aspects of acupuncture reported by people receiving treatment for addiction include:4
- Does not reduce cravings
- Creates a physical distraction
- Effects are short-lasting
- Must be performed with assistance
Finding a Treatment Program That Offers Acupuncture
Every treatment program has a different philosophy and approach to addiction recovery, which means their services and treatment methods may vary. Any reputable drug rehab is going to utilize evidence-based treatment modalities, such as individual therapy, group counseling, family therapy, and beyond, but complementary and holistic therapies may differ.
The best way to find out if a rehab program offers acupuncture is to call them and ask. If you locate a center in your desired geographical area that includes acupuncture treatment, it is important to make sure that the providers are certified and licensed. To offer acupuncture, providers must meet strict criteria, complete the appropriate training, and meet licensure requirements.4,5
You can find addiction treatment programs that include acupuncture by calling our helpline at 800-405-1685 (Who Answers?) to speak to a compassionate and knowledgeable rehab support specialist.
- Lin, J., Chan, Y., & Chen, Y. (2012). Acupuncture for the Treatment of Opiate Addiction. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine,2012, 1-10. doi:10.1155/2012/739045
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2020). Acupuncture.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR—Code of Federal Regulations Title 21—Food and Drugs: Chapter I—Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, Subchapter H—Medical Devices.
- National Institutes of Health. (2017, February 21). Acupuncture: In depth.
- Bruce, L. (2011). Ear acupuncture: a tool for recovery. Yale School of Medicine.
- National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. (2021). Certification for acupuncture.
- Waletzky, L.R., & Handel, M.J. (n.d.). Holistic approach to the addiction recovery process.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, June 3). Evidence-based approaches to drug addiction treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2021, July 27. Drugs and the brain.
- Li, Q. Q., Shi, G. X., Xu, Q., Wang, J., Liu, C. Z., & Wang, L. P. (2013). Acupuncture effect and central autonomic regulation. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2013, 267959.
- Adinoff B. (2004). Neurobiologic processes in drug reward and addiction. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12(6), 305–320.
- Bergdahl, L., Berman, A. H., & Haglund, K. (2012). Patients’ experience of auricular acupuncture during protracted withdrawal. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 21(2), 163-169. doi:10.1111/jpm.12028