To put it simply, acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine in which thin needles are inserted into the body. This practice is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, and the most widespread method of acupuncture in the United States derives from traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture therapy has been used to help heal and promote wellness for over 2,000 years.
Modern medicine explains the benefits of acupuncture using neuroscience. Traditional Chinese medicine focuses on the balance and flow of energy. Western practitioners tend to identify acupuncture points as places where stimulation to nerves, muscles, and connective tissue increases blood flow and activates the body’s natural endorphins. There are critics who say many studies on acupuncture are hard to prove because of the nature of the treatment versus control groups. Some would say any improvements may merely by placebo effects. However, many have experienced benefits from trying this method of treatment as part of personalized addiction recovery programs.
It is typical to use acupuncture for pain relief, although it can help with a wide range of other conditions as well. Generally, acupuncture is used in combination with other forms of treatment and has been known to be an effective addition to holistic addiction treatment. In 1997, the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) publicized acupuncture’s safety and efficacy for helping treat various conditions.
Relapse and Craving Prevention
One acupuncture technique applies small needles called “seeds” to the ear. A large study examining three auricular acupuncture protocols such as this looked at relapse prevention in drug users. This study concluded that all three protocols were associated with reductions in drug use over time.
In another study examining acupunctures impact on relapse prevention, an 8-week randomized study of 32 subjects compared two groups:
- One group was given acupuncture treatment with two prescription medications used for craving reduction
- The other received a placebo for cocaine addicts on methadone maintenance therapy
Half of the subjects in the test dropped out, so the results were not so concrete. However, almost 90% of those who completed the treatment achieved abstinence by the end of the study. The patients who completed the trial and achieved abstinence reported:
- Diminished craving
- Significantly improved mood
Over the years there have been hundreds of clinical studies on the benefits of acupuncture. According to the UC San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine, some studies claim that it can successfully help treat:
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Migraine headaches
Although again, these treatments can often include medications and other forms of therapy.
Opiate Addiction and Acupuncture
The mesolimbic dopamine system originates in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and projects to regions that include:
- Nucleus accumbens
- Prefrontal cortex
Expert believe these areas play a pivotal role in the development of opiate addiction.
Opioid abuse causes changes in the levels of dopamine in the brain. These reactions are typically associated with feelings of pleasure and well-being. This positive association helps drive the development of opiate abuse. So when someone discontinued opioid use, it reduces dopamine outflow in the nucleus accumbens. This is what creates opioid withdrawal.
Many studies in animals and humans have demonstrated that acupuncture causes multiple biological responses. The best-known mechanism is via endogenous opiates and their receptors.
In 1993, Han and Zhang reported the effectiveness of EA on morphine abstinence syndrome in a rat experimental model. The authors found that acupuncture point 100 Hz EA produced a statistically significant suppression of symptoms such as:
- Wet shakes
- Teeth chattering
- Escape attempts
- Weight loss
They also discovered acupuncture point 2 Hz EA produced a mild but significant suppression in:
- Escape attempts
- Wet shakes
These results suggest that 100 Hz EA was far more effective than 2 Hz EA in suppressing drug withdrawal syndrome. Further studies suggested that EA suppresses opiate withdrawal syndrome by activating κ opioid receptors and dynorphin release.
In short, there are researchers who believe that acupuncture is an effective method of therapy for helping treat those recovering from opioid addiction. Again, it may not be a good enough treatment on its own, but it can have an impact on cravings and other stressors in the body that help prevent relapse. So whether you believe in balancing the flow of energy in the body, or just pinpointing the nerves, acupuncture might be one way to enhance your recovery program.