United States researchers are exploring the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment option for addiction.
Acupuncture, designed to restore balance in the body, has been used for more than 2,000 years in China and Asia.
Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx is reportedly one of the first facilities to offer acupuncture for addiction and the Veterans Administration lists acupuncture as a viable treatment option in its guidelines for treating posttraumatic stress disorder.
Laurie Edwards, Psy.D., a psychologist, administers auricular acupuncture at the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC) at the Yale School of Medicine and explained this particular form of acupuncture addresses addiction by targeting five points on the outside of the ear that correspond to different organ systems in the body.
“The first one links to the autonomic nervous system, that is, the fight or flight/rest and digest response,” she said. “The second focuses on stillness and centering and the third cleanses the organs, relaxes the muscles in the body and releases fear.”
The fourth, the liver point, purifies this organ and releases anger; the fifth point cleanses the lung and releases grief, she added.
Therapy is done in group format where 15 to 20 individuals can be treated simultaneously, Edwards said. She explains the process to patients, emphasizing that they have a choice as to how many points to address. “Some patients have idiosyncratic reasons for not addressing one point or another,” she said. “After we insert the needles, we put on music. I like to do guided relaxation.”
Since talking at the beginning of treatment is minimal, the clinic can treat a non-English speaking population.
Acupuncture is safe for almost all patient populations, although certain co-occurring conditions require extra attention. Since a small amount of bleeding may occur, individuals with diabetes are advised to clean their ears thoroughly after each session.
“We use acupressure seeds for people with pacemakers, hemophiliacs or those taking blood thinners,” Edwards said. “We do only two points on pregnant patients and people who have an electronic pain management pump in their back must turn it off.”
For patients eager to try acupuncture but who fear needles, Edwards uses magnets or seeds to solicit a response.
The literature validating the effectiveness of acupuncture for addiction indicates that each patient requires a unique approach, said Edwards. “I’ve been doing acupuncture for the last year and a half, and the same people come every week.”
Currently, CMHC offers weekly sessions, but Edwards would like to increase the frequency to three times per week. “Personally, I practice yoga and meditation and find that acupuncture stills the mind sometimes better than meditation,” she said.
Collaboration between the acupuncturist and treating psychiatrist is also key to achieving optimal results. “I try to go with the patient to the psychiatrist appointment. There is constant interaction between practitioners,” Edwards said.
Smokers may also find acupuncture effective in helping them kick the habit, according to Liansheng Liu, DA, M.D., Ph.D., owner of the Acupuncture and Herbal Health Center in Cranston, Rhode Island. He indicated that even those with a 30-year history of smoking might achieve a positive outcome. “Normally it takes three to five sessions to have results,” he said, but notes that in some cases, cravings are reduced by half following one visit.
Psychologists interested in adding acupuncture to their practice portfolio should contact the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association to locate trainers who can teach the technique. “For someone with mental health training, this training is pretty brief, approximately 40 hours. If you are doing this in private practice you have to have a doctor or psychiatrist sign off on the therapy.”
By Phyllis Hanlon