Acupuncture is a type of alternative medicine where thin sterilized needles are inserted into the body to bring a specific effect. Though it has roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), many acupuncture practitioners today no longer use TCM as a basis for diagnosis or treatment.1,4,6
Today, acupuncture is, perhaps, the most widely accepted and studied alternative medical practice. In Greater Boston, there are dozens of acupuncture practices, with several even situated inside hospitals or clinics that primarily offer mainstream medical care. This is a testament, at least, to the effectiveness of the practice in some circumstances.4
The practice has long been used for treating a wide variety of physical and psychological conditions. Most notably, it has been used to control cravings for different substances, such as sweets, nicotine, drugs, and alcohol.1,2,3,4,6
While mainstream medical practice tends to consider acupuncture to be a pseudoscience, thousands of large studies have, controversially, shown it to be effective for certain conditions, including substance use disorder (SUD). The safety and low cost of the practice have made it popularly recommended as a supplemental SUD intervention, even among a few mainstream medical practitioners. 4,6
Here, we’ll look into its current use in treating SUD as well as current views on the practice. This might help make better decisions about whether to incorporate acupuncture in your SUD recovery strategy.
Acupuncturists today may use TCM or a more modern scientific approach.
TCM practitioners use a philosophy based on the concepts of energy (“Qi”) and the harmony of two opposing forces (“yin” and “yang”). According to this idea, illnesses — including mental ones like SUD — are the result of yin and yang being out of balance due to a blockage of qi. Inserting needles at specific points in the body’s “meridians” can release this blocked qi, thus restoring balance.1,2,3,4,6
Practitioners who use modern theories of medicine, on the other hand, use acupuncture needles to stimulate specific bundles of nerves, sometimes applying electricity to the needles. This may cause the body to release natural hormones that numb pain, create a feeling of wellness, or restore sensation in a desensitized area.4,6
Acupuncture is currently used for a wide variety of conditions directly and indirectly related to SUD. Positive claims have been made for several benefits. Some of the purported benefits for SUD recovery include the following:4,6
Verifying these effects is problematic as acupuncture in real-world practice is not confined to any single TCM or scientific framework. As a result, there is no single agreed mechanism attributed to its effectiveness. Additionally, though there have been thousands of studies on acupuncture made, there have been many challenges creating a solid meta-analysis of these given the variety of frameworks and results.4,6
In any case, it’s indisputable that multiple studies show acupuncture performs better than placebo in many applications, particularly in pain and nausea control, and when using more modern frameworks.5,4,6
Its effect on psychiatric conditions is still disputed, though the methodical act of undergoing acupuncture may have meditative qualities that allow a patient to better calm down and focus, which may be what creates the benefits cited in studies.1,2,3,4,6
Additionally, the placebo effect of acupuncture suggests that anyone who believes it works or might work can stand to see at least some benefits from the practice.4
In the context of SUD, there is some evidence that acupuncture could be effective at controlling pain, headaches, and nausea associated with drug withdrawals. There is limited evidence that it could control cravings but the pain control afforded by the practice may help with relapse prevention, as it may prevent the regular use of habit-forming painkillers or sedatives.5,4,6
The process of undergoing acupuncture may also have a calming effect, and there is some evidence that the practice may have benefits for one’s mood by signaling the central nervous system to release mood-stabilizing hormones.4,6
If you do want to try acupuncture as part of your recovery from SUD, it should be understood that acupuncture is not a substitute for psychotherapy or medically assisted interventions. More evidence may be needed before we have a widely accepted scientific framework for acupuncture in a medical setting. Also, if you do try acupuncture, it may be best to keep your expectations realistic.4
Boston Drug Treatment Centers is a network of SUD treatment centers that spans the Greater Boston area and beyond. If you’re interested in trying out acupuncture or other types of complementary interventions for SUD, call Call now (857) 577-8193 to discuss your options.