Acupuncture has been used to treat chronic and acute health conditions for thousands of years, but has only recently become popular in the United States. Evidence shows, however, that it can be helpful in treating a number of chronic conditions—including alcohol addiction.
But how effective is acupuncture for alcoholism, really? What aspects of addiction does it help with? And if you’re in recovery, should you try acupuncture? Below, we’ll look at the research on acupuncture and alcohol use disorder, and whether it could be a good part of your recovery arsenal.
What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with sterilized, hair-thin needles. It is sometimes combined with electrical stimulation or heat. There are over 2,000 acupuncture points in the body which, depending on the combination, are said to treat a wide array of ailments.
The practice of acupuncture originates with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners, who believe that it stimulates the proper flow of a type of energy called Qi (chee) throughout the body. Within TCM, Qi is thought to play a crucial role in a person’s overall health. Acupuncture points are located along meridians through which Qi is believed to flow. Stimulating these points is thought to help remove Qi blockages and resolve an array of chronic and acute illnesses.
From the perspective of western medicine, how acupuncture works is not yet fully clear. But researchers currently believe it stimulates the central nervous system, impacting the release of neurochemicals and boosting the body’s healing process. Studies by the National Institute of Health (NIH) indicate that acupuncture is effective in treating back pain, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, addiction, and more.
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Can Acupuncture Help With Alcoholism?
Research on acupuncture and alcoholism is still emerging, with mixed results. Many studies have limited rigor and relatively small sample sizes.
Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that acupuncture can help with alcohol dependence. A meta-analysis of acupuncture’s effect on alcohol-related symptoms and behaviors showed a “relatively strong” positive impact.
The NADA protocol is an especially common type of acupuncture for addiction recovery. The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) trains people in this approach, which involves the placement of five needles into acupuncture points on both ears. Recipients are treated for 30-45 minutes in a group setting. This protocol is designed to treat trauma, stress, and addiction.
Studies on the NADA Protocol suggest that it helps with self-esteem and energy levels, and can improve long-term recovery outcomes among higher-risk populations. Recipients appear to get the best results when combining NADA with other treatments like medical support, counseling, education, or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.
What Aspects of Addiction Does Acupuncture Help With?
Specifically, acupuncture may help reduce alcohol intake and cravings, depression and anxiety, and withdrawal symptoms.
Acupuncture for Alcoholism and Depression
Depression and anxiety are common co-occurring disorders with alcoholism, often contributing to a feedback cycle which reinforces addiction. Research suggests that acupuncture can help reduce the symptoms of both anxiety and depression, making the recovery process easier.
While higher quality studies are needed, multiple sources suggest that acupuncture can improve the effectiveness of antidepressant medication. In other studies, acupuncture was a helpful treatment for major depressive disorder during pregnancy, and reduced anxiety among women in recovery from alcohol dependence.
People who struggle with alcohol dependency linked to anxiety or depression may experience some relief from regular acupuncture, helping them stick with recovery.
Acupuncture for Alcohol Cravings
Alcohol cravings are one of the most difficult challenges people face in recovery, and a major factor in relapse. Cravings can feel like an uncontrollable desire to drink, coupled with an inability to stop thinking about alcohol. Acupuncture may help limit cravings, in turn limiting alcohol consumption.
A 2016 meta-analysis on acupuncture and alcohol cravings concluded that acupuncture is “potentially effective” in reducing alcohol cravings. The researchers recommended acupuncture as an additional treatment choice within national healthcare systems.
Another preclinical study with alcohol-dependent rats found that acupuncture significantly reduced alcohol intake. While it is not yet clear why acupuncture works to reduce cravings, researchers suggested that specific acupuncture points might modulate neurotransmitters and reward pathways involved in addiction.
Acupuncture for Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal is another factor that makes recovery from alcohol dependence challenging. When long-term heavy drinkers try to quit or cut back, they may experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, nausea, vomiting, sweating, shaking, and insomnia.
In more severe cases, people experience symptoms such as hallucinations and seizures. Sometimes, withdrawal is so painful that people choose to continue drinking instead.
As discussed above, acupuncture shows promise as a treatment for anxiety. But it may help with other withdrawal symptoms as well. In studies on rats, specific acupuncture points reduced tremors, hypermobility, and pain sensitivity during withdrawal. Another meta-analysis recommended acupuncture as a general treatment for alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Should People in Recovery Try Acupuncture?
Recovery from alcohol use disorder is challenging for many reasons. Often, people use alcohol to medicate severe stress, trauma, and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. It can feel scary and overwhelming to give up the relief alcohol provides. It can also be difficult to overcome barriers like alcohol cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms.
While more research is needed, existing studies on acupuncture for addiction show it may help with anxiety, depression, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms, making it easier to stick with recovery.
Acupuncture may not be effective for everyone, but it appears relatively safe to try it out. Most people don’t experience side effects from acupuncture. When they do, side effects are generally mild, including soreness, fatigue, and lightheadedness.
In other words, acupuncture for alcoholism is a potentially useful tool with few drawbacks. If you feel it might be helpful for you, there’s little harm in giving it a go.
If you decide to try acupuncture, choose a licensed acupuncture practitioner, and take precautions such as disclosing other treatments, medications, and health issues. Additionally, remember that acupuncture seems most effective when combined with other treatments. You’ll likely get the best results if you look for other forms of support as well.
Other Treatment Alternatives
Acupuncture shows promise as an alternative treatment for alcoholism, but it isn’t the only option. For people who feel that mainstream rehab isn’t a good fit, or is too expensive, there are other evidence-based methods proven to help people cut back or quit. These include FDA-approved medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, and even apps that can help you drink less.
Ria Health offers a combination of these newer treatment approaches, 100 percent online. We take each person’s unique history and goals into account, and design an affordable, convenient treatment plan geared to their personal needs. And although we don’t provide referrals for acupuncture, our program is compatible with this and other alternative treatment approaches. We support a holistic perspective on recovery that looks at a person’s entire well-being.