Whether the addiction is to drugs, alcohol, smoking, eating, or any other harmful fixation, acupuncture can assist people by helping them calm their minds and feel more comfortable in their bodies while they go through the difficult process of eliminating this behavior from their lives.
The whole goal of acupuncture treatment is to reestablish the free and easy flow of all of our body's systems, the blood flow, breathing, digestion and even emotions. Part of what is difficult about eliminating addictive behavior is that the body and mind of the person have found a balance, as uncomfortable and destructive as it is, that involves a particular substance or behavior or thought pattern, and removing that element throws the person's sense of balance into chaos.
As anyone who has tried to quit smoking knows, the physical addiction to nicotine is often less of an issue than the fact that cigarettes have been a psychological crutch for times that are stressful, or sad, or anxious, or even happy. The person needs to find a new way to cope with these times that does not involve cigarettes. Using acupuncture can powerfully assist the person to regain a sense of ease and comfort without that crutch.
There are a couple of misconceptions about the effect of acupuncture for addictions that I think it are important to address. Too often people come into my office looking for a magical cure that will release them from an addiction without their having to make any effort or change their behavior. I am asked all the time what my success rate is for treating smoking cessation. My response is that I don't have a success rate. It is the person who wants to quit who succeeds or doesn't. This was made clear to me early in my career when I treated an older gentleman who wanted to stop smoking. When he came in for his second treatment he said, “Well, the acupuncture didn't work. As soon as I left your office the last time I lit up a cigarette.” Well what did you do that for!?! You're supposed to be quitting! I didn't say that, but I sure was thinking it. The point is that this man was looking for something that would make him not want to smoke anymore. I wish it were that easy, but the cruel truth is that it almost never is.
Now when people call me looking for assistance with addictions I invite them to come in for a free initial consultation so we can talk about a strategy for achieving their goal. We talk about all the things that a person needs to do to successfully address an addiction, including identifying what the triggers are that make them want to engage in the addictive behavior, what their plan is to get through the times when those triggers come up, what lifestyle modifications they plan to make to minimize the temptations, and what other supports they have lined up to bolster their quitting. It is vital to have as many strategies and supports as possible to change this sticky and pernicious problem. It is called an addiction for a reason, after all.
This brings up a second point that should be made clear. Especially when it comes to using acupuncture for alcoholism or drug addiction, an acupuncturist can not be the sole, or even the primary, support for quitting. We are not trained or equipped to fill that role. People with these addictions need intensive intervention with a team that is readily available full-time, and acupuncturists without this specialized training can not responsibly offer this level of support. Acupuncture is best thought of as one element of a comprehensive strategy and network of supports put in place to assist a person to reach the goal of escaping their addiction.
What acupuncture does have to offer is a path back to balance in the body once the addictive element has been removed, and perhaps more importantly, a sense that achieving balance is possible. Part of the power of acupuncture is that it works with the body's own resources to restore balance and health. The process I use is to ask people to choose a “quit day”, sometime in the future when psychological stresses and distractions are at a minimum, and then do all the necessary preparation to ready themselves for that day. Then I like to treat people on their chosen quit day. The idea is that people will almost inevitably feel somewhat uncomfortable when they come in to see me, and if after their treatment they feel more comfortable it gives them a sense that they can get through the quitting process. After all, there have been no pharmaceuticals or other outside substances introduced to make them feel better, the acupuncture has simply directed their own bodies and minds to begin to heal. This can be a powerful realization in the recovery process, that people have the resources in themselves to conquer an addiction.
As the current opioid addiction crisis in this country has made clear, addictions are an incredibly tenacious and destructive problem. The cost to individuals, families and society as a whole is staggering. Acupuncture has an important role to play in alleviating this crisis, when used sensibly as part of a comprehensive treatment strategy.