Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks







Ear Acupuncture and Drug Addiction Treatment
By Brian Benjamin Carter, MS, LAc

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine. He teaches at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and maintains a private acupuncture and herbal practice in San Diego, California, and is the author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.

I know a lot of people, including myself, have suffered either our own or someone else's addiction. Most of you know what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about craving a few brownies... I'm talking about the biggies like gambling, cocaine, the internet, heroin, morphine, and other opiates, alcohol, nicotine, crack cocaine, marijuana, caffeine, pornography, food, sugar, vicodin, ultram, tobacco, and prescription drug addiction.

I felt called to tell you what Chinese Medicine has to offer in the way of Addiction Medicine. I already feel called to evangelize the power, scope, and effectiveness of Chinese Medicine. And, I know how destructive and painful addiction is - it takes a huge emotional toll on everyone, has profound financial and legal consequences, dashes hopes and destroys dreams.

Addiction and crime go hand in hand. A high percentage of felons commit their crimes under the influence. Although criminals may imbibe in order to get the 'liquid courage' to commit a crime, many addicts commit crimes just to afford their addiction. The avg cost of an inmate to Californians is $23,406 per year, whereas the average cost of a full treatment program is $4,300, after which criminal activity drops 70%.

If you've never experienced a real addiction, then it's hard to understand. You may be tempted to judge, criticize, lecture, or moralize. Those approaches don't work. The disease centers in the mind and spirit; it is the only disease that tells you that you don't have it. Psychologists call this 'denial.' Many people are stuck in a cycle of addiction because their unhealthy dependences are substitutes for healthy coping mechanisms. This means their emotional growth was stunted at some point, and it stays that way until they recover. This is a powerful disease; far from seeking substance abuse treatment, addicts and alcoholics persist in self-destruction despite extreme consequences. Divorce, bankruptcy, physical pain, jail stays, and institutionalization may be reason to wake up and have a moment of clarity, or they may be ignored and tolerated until the addict is killed by emphysema, sexually transmitted disease, jail violence, suicide, or accident.

To overcome addiction, we need as many helps/tools/weapons as we can find. If Acupuncture could help addicts in overcoming drug addiction, that would be a Good Thing, right? Of course. Well, can it do that?

Acupuncture has helped pull alcoholics and addicts back from the gates of insanity and death, eased them through withdrawal, and accompanied them in rebirth as mostly functional, relatively happy human beings. It has been most successful when combined with the appropriate 12-step program for the object of dependence (AA for Alcoholics, NA for addicts, OA for overeaters, etc.). Acupuncture is not a substitute; it is a complementary treatment option to give addicts a better chance at recovery.

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How it Works

Addiction is a two-part problem. There is an obsession (the desire to use, drink, or act out), which is a mental and emotional phenomena (restlessness, discontent, irritability), and there is a physical/emotional craving that occurs afterwards (1 drink is too many, 1000 is not enough, or the immediate biological addiction experienced after smoking crack just once). The ear acupuncture treatment works to eliminate the mental obsession.

The 2 Aspects of Addiction
  Mental Obsession Physical Craving
What is it? Restlessness, irritability, or discontent that precedes the act or substance intake. A biological/neurochemical process that occurs after the act or intake.
What can be done? Diminished or eliminated temporarily by NADA and daily 12-step-work. Will not, or is less likely to go away- the potential for lack of control after starting is always there.


How does ear acupuncture diminish the power of the mental obsession? From a Chinese Medicine standpoint, the ear points are calming, and regulate the Liver, Lung, and Kidney Yin. From a biomedical perspective, as Fernando Bernall, Dipl. Ac. points out, "We can speculate about the role of several cranial nerves that originate in the brain stem and innervate the ear. It is thought that stimulation to these nerve terminals in the ear, generate a neural chain of events responsible for the feeling of relaxation experienced by the patient. Indeed, research has demonstrated that acupuncture can influence the neurochemical pathways of the brain. In particular, those of the mesolimbic system. This area is involved in the mechanism responsible for reward and pleasure. Microdialysis and blood samples from laboratory animals have shown an increase of endogenous opiates in the central and peripheral nervous system after acupuncture stimulation." - Auricular Acupuncture For Drug Addiction

The Origins of Acupuncture Treatment for Alcoholism and Addiction

Acupuncture treatment for addiction dates back to the early 1970s. "In 1972, a neurosurgeon in Hong Kong, Dr. H. L. Wen, was preparing a patient for surgery using ear acupuncture as an analgesic method. The patient, who coincidentally was suffering from withdrawal symptoms from opium, informed Dr. Wen that his withdrawal symptoms had subsided. In light of this information, Dr. Wen tested the procedure on other patients with similar addictions and their discomfort diminished as well." - Auricular Acupuncture For Drug Addiction

Pioneering Work in the U.S.: Lincoln Hospital, New York

Acupuncture has been helping alcoholics and addicts at Lincoln Hospital in New York since 1975. According to Ricardo B. Serrano, L.Ac., "The mechanisms of acupuncture detoxification from the perspective of Oriental Medicine can be described metaphorically. The lack of inner calm tone due to intense and frequent use of chemical substances is described as a condition of 'empty fire' (Smith, 1985) wherein heat of aggressiveness overcompensates and the calm inner tone is lost."

Research Studies

Numerous studies done by the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) have validated the effectiveness of acupuncture for alcoholism treatment and addiction treatment. "In 1987 in a medically supervised study of chronic homeless alcoholic men in Hennepin County, Minnesota, 80 subjects were divided into two groups matched for drinking history and prior treatment experience. The control groups were given sham acupuncture, needled at non-therapeutic points a few millimeters away from standard points. 93% of the treatment group completed the eight week treatment regimen, compared with 2.5% of the control group. During the six month follow-up of the two groups, the control group had more than twice as many drinking episodes and had to be readmitted to detox more than twice as often as the experimental group." - Acupuncture Treatment for Chemical Dependency - An Overview; More info about NADA

Addiction Treatment Success Rate

The 93% drug detox success for 8 weeks and two times the success at the 6 month follow-up were mentioned above. "When used in an inpatient detoxification setting, alcoholic seizures virtually disappear, even without the use of pharmaceutical intervention. One of the first residential detox programs to implement acupuncture was Portland, Oregon's Hooper Memorial Detox Center in 1987. Clients entering this 5 day residential detox-to-referral program were six times less likely to return in the following six months than clients who entered the facility prior to the implementation of twice-daily acupuncture, and the program's overall completion rate increased from 60% to 92%." - Acupuncture Treatment for Chemical Dependency - An Overview

What You Can Do

If you know an addict: Before addiction recovery can begin, the addict must "hit bottom." This means that they must experience the consequences of their behavior sufficiently to break through the wall of denial. For many addicts, this takes a long time, as if it will never happen. Don't shield an addict from the consequences of their choices. You will be making it harder for them to 'get it.' It can be painful to witness someone else's bottom, but how much more painful is it to watch them end up with diabetes, emphysema, or dead? If you need help with someone else's problem, start with Al-Anon. There are fellowships to help with addicts in their lives regardless of the drug or nature of the problem (e.g. Gam-Anon, Nar-Anon, Co-Anon).

If you are an addict: You may not be sure or believe you are one. That's ok. No pressure... Consider this- if you are, you are trapped, imprisoned. Your whole life is controlled by a lie, and most of your beliefs and conviction are probably well-crafted rationalizations and resentments. IF you are addicted, and recovery from that requires that "the only thing you change is everything," then how long do you want to wait to get real? How many more months or years do you want to look back upon, thinking "that was all a lie!" Listen, if you want the things outside of you to change, you'll have to change your insides. Get started. Find a meeting, or a treatment center. Start today, right now. There is no good time. Do it now. Don't think. Just do it. Let me know when you've made it to the other side.

If you have no access to acupuncture treatment for addiction: Write your senators (click here to find out where to write them) and tell them they need to mimic California Proposition 36 which earmarks funds for the NADA protocol treatment of addiction. "Every additional dollar invested in substance abuse treatment saves taxpayers $7.46 in societal costs." - The Drug Policy Research Center, RAND, 1994.

Copyright 2001, Brian Benjamin Carter, The Pulse of Oriental Medicine

All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.
Copyright 1999-2001, Pulse Media International