If you’ve ever researched alternative medicine for addiction, you’d know that the entire subject can be…a bit contentious, at best. For some, it seems like one of the best possible solutions to the associated symptoms, especially when it comes to emotional health concerns. Others find it little more than an unnecessary expense. The truth, as with most forms of medicine, really lies somewhere in the middle and is different for each patient.
In no form of alternative medicine is this truer than with regard to acupuncture. This ancient practice involves placing tiny needles into the skin at specific points; by doing so, practitioners believe they can alleviate illness or disorder throughout the body. It’s difficult to know if this approach works, or if it’s simply another form of snake oil.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence does exist; plenty of people in recovery have had excellent results with acupuncture, especially when the treatment is paired with regular therapy.
If you’re considering adding acupuncture to your sober living arsenal, understanding the practice more thoroughly and how it may or may not help is an important step to take. Let’s break down the basics and take a deeper look.
What Does Research Say?
You’re smart; science-minded, even. You know through your own history that it’s important to research treatment of any kind, be it medication or therapy, before you dive in. Making the wrong choices could jeopardize your sobriety or simply not protect you from relapses at all. You should celebrate your dedication to understanding the treatments you use, and be proud of your willingness to learn.
Unfortunately, turning to clinicians and researchers isn’t terribly helpful when it comes to acupuncture. Most studies show an approximate 50/50 split right down the middle in its efficacy. The majority of studies show the same level of symptoms with or without acupuncture treatment, especially when acupuncture is used alone without other treatment methods. Essentially, this means that (at least from a scientific standpoint) we really can’t be sure just yet if it works or not. It also means that acupuncture is unlikely to serve as a standalone treatment for addiction at any point in the near or distant future.
That said, acupuncture is overwhelmingly safe when given by a qualified practitioner. In terms of treatments you should attempt, it isn’t likely to harm you or poison you. The only real risk with acupuncture lies in infection or excessive bleeding, both of which are caused by extraneous treatment issues like reusing needles or having a blood disorder. As long as your doctor agrees, you should feel comfortable trying acupuncture at least once or twice to see if it works for you.
What Do Practitioners Say?
Practitioners of acupuncture naturally have a more favorable opinion of the practice and how it can benefit those with addiction. Reported benefits are many and include everything from better digestion to better sleep, both crucial elements of recovery and sober living. Even an article by the U.C. San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine agrees. “Acupuncture improves the body’s functions and promotes the natural self-healing process by stimulating specific anatomic sites–commonly referred to as acupuncture points, or acupoints.”
The article also highlights that, although research so far has been largely inconclusive, there is enough evidence to support at least some benefit to the body.
“Modern research has demonstrated acupuncture’s effects on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating the body’s various systems, acupuncture can help to resolve pain, and improve sleep, digestive function, and sense of well-being.”
How Acupuncture Can Benefit Addiction Treatment
A few studies, including this one, link acupuncture’s benefits to the fact that the barely-noticeable pain it produces triggers the same neurochemicals implicated in addiction and withdrawal: serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and endorphins. Deficiencies or dysregulation in any of these chemicals can and often does produce chronic pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other symptoms that may take place in both acute withdrawal and Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). This is especially common after using meth or opiates like heroin.
So does acupuncture really make sense in addiction treatment? Well, yes and no; it seems to very much depend on when and how you use it. As an adjunct to other forms of treatment, there is enough evidence to its benefits to give it a shot.
Adding Acupuncture to Your Arsenal
Acupuncture is a bit like massage therapy in that it won’t necessarily fix things, but it certainly can improve the results found within more assertive treatment protocols like detox, psychotherapy, or physiotherapy. Spiritually, emotionally, and physically, it can improve the condition of the body in small ways that make recovery easier to deal with in the first place.
In the case of conditions like PAWS, symptoms may continue for as little as a few months or as long as several years. Proper symptom management is vital if you want to stay on the right path; there’s nothing more dangerous than ignoring your symptoms and trying to just muddle through all on your own.
Typically, doctors would prescribe psychotherapy or medications to help you get through these after-effects. And to be clear, this isn’t a recommendation that you should give up those attempts in your journey. It is important to recognize that medications alone aren’t right for every patient, and sometimes psychotherapy isn’t enough. Following a multimodal treatment approach is by far and large shown to produce the best results.
When you simply want to try everything possible, adding one or two session of acupuncture to your toolkit is an excellent place to start.
At worst, you won’t see any changes; at best, you’re simply providing yourself with one more shield against relapse. Even if it turns out to be the wrong approach for you, it’s a bit like “no harm, no foul.” You can simply stop and move on to something else. Taking steps to properly care for yourself – something many recovering addicts have to learn from scratch – is something you should be immensely proud of. You deserve it!
Ultimately, only you and your care team can decide whether acupuncture is right for your recovery journey. What it is not is a replacement for regular medical care; what it is is a remarkably gentle treatment method that won’t overtax your system. Unlike opiates or stimulants, it is gentle enough to work within the confines of what your body can tolerate without requiring extensive recovery time. Depending on how your body reacts to it, you may just find that it improves your mood, energy levels, and comfort as you move forward with your new life.