Alternative Health Care Center


The Use of Acupuncture in Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Brief History

Acupuncture is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine in the United States. It was introduced to the U.S. from China nearly 40 years ago. It has been widely used in the U.S. health care system. Serial medical research and experimentation with the healing powers of acupuncture has led to the discovery of a highly promising weapon in the fight against chemical dependency.

Using acupuncture in drug detoxification treatment started in 1974. It was discovered by a neurosurgeon, Dr. H. L. Wen in Hong Kong. When he was integrating acupuncture treatment for medical care of his patients, who were also opiate-addicts, he noticed a reduction in their withdrawal symptoms of addiction. He decided to experiment the acupuncture treatment in the methadone clinic. Over the years, this treatment protocol had been developed, taught to numerous practitioners and employed in the addiction treatment field around the world.

The first drug detoxification center utilizing acupuncture in the U.S. was the Lincoln Clinic directed by Dr. Michael Smith in New York City, South Bronx area. The clinic protocol relies on four major tools in helping serious addicts recover: acupuncture detoxification treatment, urine screen testing, individual counseling, and participation in group therapies. The success of Lincoln Clinic has inspired the opening of public-funded acupuncture detoxification program in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Chicago, Portland, Miami, and other locations. Since then, acupuncture detoxification became one of the fast growing fields in the nation.

Effect of Acupuncture on addictions and Clinical Outcome

The benefits of acupuncture in treating drug and alcohol addictions include:

- Acupuncture regulates nerve system, tranquilizes the mind, relieves the tension, and helps people relax by triggering the body to release certain natural body chemicals which can decrease cravings and alleviate the withdrawal symptoms.

- Acupuncture improves functional activities of internal organs, such as liver, lungs, and kidneys, etc., which detoxify and eliminate the toxicities from the body systems.

- Acupuncture strengthens body’s immune system, builds-up the energy level, and promotes general health.

At Lincoln Clinic, more than 200 people experience the benefits of acupuncture every day. Dr. Smith explains that the advantage of integrating acupuncture into traditional western treatment programs is overwhelming. The primary value of acupuncture is its immediate effect on ceasing withdrawal symptoms and encouraging patients to come again for treatment in the future.

Dr. smith also pointed out: one of acupuncture’s greatest strengths is that it forges a bond between doctor and patient even before verbal communication is established. He said: “Acupuncture will be just as effective even when the patient lies to us. In some cases, the patient may be in denial, or feeling angry, or intimidated, acupuncture’s immediate effects are not dependent on the cooperation of the patient. Acupuncture’s primary effect is to stimulate relaxation.” In addition to reducing withdrawal symptoms, acupuncture provides a strong calming effect on substance abusers and substantially reduces drug craving. Clients describe the effects of acupuncture as “allowing them to feel relaxed yet alert.” According to Dr. Smith, the feeling of relaxation is essential. Unlike methadone treatment, acupuncture affects the patient’s state of mind during withdrawal, not the body’s need for a drug. Today, the Lincoln clinic still offers acupuncture detoxification trainings to people from all over the world.

Although acupuncture may not be a physiological cure for drug addiction, and more scientific data on this subject need to be collected, there is a consensus that acupuncture does have a soothing, relaxing effect which is extremely helpful to people experiencing any kind of lifestyle change, especially a change of the magnitude of drug withdrawal. Many experts in the medical community believe that acupuncture is beneficial for addicts seeking this kind of changes. However, to truly beat addiction, according to many experts in the field, individuals need to learn to make decisions based on their own sense of self-worth and a confidence that they can change their environment.

Therefore, the most effective and powerful treatment for fighting addiction is to combine the acupuncture therapy with individual counseling and group therapies.

Research Evidence

In the United States, many country’s most prestigious universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, etc., have conducted numerous controlled studies on acupuncture treatment for addictions. In 2000, a report published in the “Archives of Internal Medicine.” Researchers at Yale School of Medicine stated: study results showed that participants who received acupuncture therapy were more likely to have cocaine-negative urine screens over the course of study compared to those in controlled groups.

The Yale University’s study included 82 participants who were addicted to both heroin and cocaine. Participants were assigned to one of three groups: auricular acupuncture detoxification group; ‘controlled’ acupuncture group (no specific points treatment); relaxation group without acupuncture. In addition, all participants also received individual counseling and group therapy. After eight weeks, the urine results showed that 54.8 percent of participants in the auricular acupuncture detoxification group tested free of cocaine compare to 23.5 and 9.1 percent in two other groups. Those who completed acupuncture detoxification treatments also had longer periods of sustained abstinence compare to participants in two other groups.

From excellent clinical outcome of Lincoln Clinic to Yale research finding, the success rate with acupuncture is substantially higher than conventional programs. Unlike methadone which is itself a highly addictive drug that is used primarily as a heroin substitute for heroin addicts. Acupuncture is a natural procedure with no side effects. It can treat a wide range of addictions. It works equally well for cocaine crack and heroin addicts, alcoholics, users of psychedelics, and people addicted to barbiturates and amphetamines. Addicts report a marked reduction in craving for drugs, a relief from symptoms of withdrawal, and feelings of relaxation and well being along with improved sleep.

There is strong physiological evidence supporting the use of acupuncture in this area. Research has shown that acupuncture can raise the level of endorphins in the nervous system. Resembling opiates in structure and function, endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. It seems that raising the level of endorphins in the nervous system can alleviate the cravings and withdrawal symptoms experienced by people giving up drugs. In addition, acupuncture also stimulates body release more soothing effects of the brain chemicals such as serotonin, as well as reduces level of the hormone cortisol which are raised by stress during detoxification process.

Recognitions and Endorsements

Acupuncture is a recognized medical procedure by World Health Organization (WHO). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified acupuncture needle as Class II medical supply in 1996

In 1997, National Institute of Health’s Consensus Statement concluded that acupuncture might be useful as an adjunct treatment or an acceptable alternative for addictions.

In 2000, in the testimony given by Dr. D.E. Kendall from the National Guild of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine to White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (WHCCAM), he strongly recommended that Oriental Medicine has several highly effective and low cost treatment protocols involving the use of acupuncture that have demonstrated the capability of playing a significant role in recovery of drug and alcohol addiction problems. He also recommended WHCCAM policy should also support treatment-on-demand and the inclusion of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine treatment within drug treatment programs, especially where federal funded program exist.

In 2000, after Yale University’s study report, Dr. Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stated: “this is a well done clinical trial.” It revealed that acupuncture is a treatment approach that ought to be considered seriously. He also added that acupuncture could be used in conjunction with other therapies, such as psychological counseling to improve treatment outcomes.

Dr. Daniel Iead, a clinical coordinator at the Grant Street Partnership, an addiction services agency in New Haven, Connecticut, was even more enthusiastic. He stated: “The results are indisputable. We have been doing it here for years and it works. The results are fantastic. Some of our most difficult cases have turned their lives around because of it.”

Professional Experience

For past three decades, acupuncture has been used in the United States to help people reduce their craving for alcohol/addictive substances and fight addiction. I have been working in this field since 1991. I employed thousands of treatments to the clients who were battling the addiction problems. I have worked in both in-patient and out-patient settings.

The clients in the early phase of in-patient treatment usually have very intense withdrawal symptoms since they had ‘zero’ chance of getting the substances. They usually experience headache, body aches or painful joints, insomnia, anxiety or depression, agitated emotions and behavior, etc. After numbers of treatments, the changes of their emotions and behavior are impressive, and other symptoms will be gradually minimized. They will be much calmer and able to function normally.

The clients in the early phase of outpatient program usually have hard time to stop using the drugs or alcohol. The battle with craving and withdrawal symptoms is crucial. Using acupuncture treatment at least 1-2 times per week in conjunction with their individual counseling and group therapies certainly helped them overcome the difficulties and ultimately win the battle. The acupuncture is effective to help alleviate many of the serious symptoms of withdrawal and facilitate detoxification process.

In the later part of both in/outpatient program, acupuncture treatments can help strengthen their mental and physical abilities for fighting addictions, maintaining sober and preventing relapse.

Acupuncture is very effective in controlling addictions. The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) holds their annual conference to update the profession with very valuable information. I am convinced that combining the acupuncture with individual psychological counseling and group therapies will make a difference.


The Use of Acupuncture in Drug Addiction Treatment-By Judd R. Spray and Sharon M. Jones on News Briefs 09/1995

NIH Consensus Statement-National Institute of Health       11/1997

Acupuncture is Promising Treatment for Cocaine Addition, Yale Researchers Find

                        Date posted: 08/15/2000

White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (WHCCAM) – Dr. D. E. Kendall (National Guide of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine       2000