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Of Cures and Needles

Acupuncture for the treatment of addictions

acupuncture needles,model and moxa cigar with textbookThe use of acupuncture for the treatment of addictions dates back to as early as the Opium War, when it was used extensively by Chinese physicians to treat withdrawal symptoms of opium addiction. More recently in the 1970s, research done in Hong Kong and the US has also shown the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of alcohol and opiate addictions.

The anecdote is told of Hong Kong neurosurgeon Dr HL Wen, who in 1972 had initially scheduled his patient who had an opiate addiction for brain surgery. Acupuncture was performed on the patient for pre-operative anaesthesia. After the acupuncture was done, Dr Wen noticed a reduction in the patient’s withdrawal symptoms, which subsequently disappeared altogether. This discovery led to the eventual cancellation of the scheduled brain surgery due to the patient’s substantial improvement.

By and by, acupuncture became progressively used elsewhere in the world as part of addictions management. Currently there are centres located in Malaysia, Thailand, Europe, UK, Hong Kong, Canada, and the US which use acupuncture as part of their treatment programme for addictive disorders.

How it Works

There is a Chinese saying which implies that the human body is more prone to invasion by evil pathogens when its ‘Qi’ is weak. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, ‘Qi’ is an invisible entity that everyone possesses, and its circulation in the meridians (energy pathways) of the body is vital to the body’s essential functioning. According to TCM, ‘Qi’ serves many functions, from driving blood flow to building up a layer of defence around the body. Acupuncture essentially involves strengthening the ‘Qi’ of the body by the use of needling at specific acupoints to relieve any blockages of ‘Qi’.

In Western medicine, this effect of acupuncture has been explained by its ability to stimulate the immune system and physiological processes which aid recovery. Acupuncture has also been shown to release endorphins in the body, which are the same chemicals responsible for pain relief and producing a state of euphoria. These same chemicals are released after a relaxing run and can be a powerful way to “soothe” the body when it is stressed. Of course, not all of its effects are due to endorphins as there are also other chemicals involved like Gamma Amino Butyric Acid (GABA).

Physiotherapist doing accupunctureAlleviating Physical Symptoms of Withdrawal, Pain, and Cravings

Acupuncture in addictions treatment functions to alleviate the physical symptoms of withdrawal, pain, cravings and some co-occurring disorders, such as mood disorders and anxiety associated with addictive disorders. It also aids in treating any accompanying psychological distress. As such, it can be especially helpful in relapse prevention. Where it is used as an adjunct treatment for addictions, acupuncture aims to promote recovery with a focus on improving physical health to change addiction-related behavioural problems.

A Complementary Treatment

Research evidence has shown that acupuncture is efficacious for alcohol and substance addictions disorders. To our knowledge, there is no study on acupuncture for behavioural addictions, but because of the many similarities between behavioural addictions (such as gambling addiction) and substance addictions, it is foreseeable that the benefits and effectiveness of acupuncture treatment would apply to behavioural addictions as well. Certainly, more research is needed to clarify how acupuncture works, but what we do understand are the plausible biological underpinnings of its efficacy.

However, it is important to note that acupuncture should not be used as a standalone treatment for the management of addictive disorders. Because addiction affects the individual medically, psychologically, and socially, treatment needs to be multi-modal. This calls for a multi-disciplinary team of professionals to work together to ensure optimal outcomes in treatment. Hence, in tandem with acupuncture treatment, patients should still continue their existing medical or psychological treatment programmes, counselling, support groups, and so on.

The National Addictions Management Service

The National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) located within the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) runs an Acupuncture Clinic within its outpatient clinic as part of its integrated approach to the treatment of addictive disorders. The acupuncture treatment plan offered to patients is derived from a combination of theories on addiction disorders from both Western medicine and TCM acupuncture.

At NAMS, acupuncture is an adjunct treatment meant to complement and enhance existing primary treatment programmes which are the mainstay of treatment. These include medical evaluation, individual counselling, family therapy, and psychoeducation and support groups for patients and their families. NAMS also has an inpatient facility called Serenity Centre for patients who need to undergo detoxification and rehabilitation.

This acupuncture service caters only for persons with a primary diagnosis of an addiction disorder. Patients who are not suitable for acupuncture treatment include pregnant women, patients on blood thinning medications, or those who have a history of seizures. The psychiatrist-cum-addictions acupuncturist will do a thorough assessment of an individual’s suitability during the consultation that takes place prior to the acupuncture session.

What to Expect

Acupuncture for addictions treatment is mostly done on acupoints on the ears and the four limbs. A minimum of 10 sessions over six weeks is recommended. Each session lasts about half an hour, and the needles used are all pre-packaged sterile disposable needles. The psychiatrist-cum-addictions acupuncturist will assess the patient at the end of the 10 sessions and advise if further acupuncture sessions may be beneficial.

If you have been troubled by an addictive disorder for some time and you still have not found the solution that you are looking for, it may be worthwhile to consider this approach. The synergistic approach of fusing Western medical concepts of addictions with the ancient wisdom of TCM aims to harness the strengths of both in augmenting one’s chances of recovery. There are also relatively few side effects of acupuncture to be concerned about. Above all, this is an evidence-based approach and the potential benefits are worth exploring for yourself.

Dr Lambert Low Tchern Kuang is a Registrar in Psychiatry who will be specialising in addictions. He is currently doing a two-year Graduate Diploma in Acupuncture (GDA) course at the Singapore College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). He will start practising acupuncture at the NAMS Acupuncture Clinic after he completes his course. For more information, call the All Addictions Helpline (6-RECOVER; 6-7326837) or visit
Posted by ezyhealth on Apr 8 2014. Filed under Mental Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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