Accupuncture and Accupressure for Addiction Treatment

Acupuncture is a system of healing developed over 3,000 years ago in China. It spread throughout the Far East and then, thanks to French Jesuit missionaries, to Europe. It came to America in the kits of Chinese immigrants, particularly Chinese railroad workers during the 19th century.

History in the West

What really launched acupuncture in the West, however, was a single column in the New York Times in the late 1970s written by an influential journalist named James Reston who was in China covering President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China. After an unexpected emergency appendectomy, Reston was given acupuncture to reduce post-operative pain and described his medical adventure in his column. It inspired a rush of American medical doctors to China to investigate the technique. During the thirty years since Reston’s post-op pain relief, acupuncture has been used to treat many different physical and emotional conditions in hospitals and private clinics around the world. According to the World Health Organization, over 40 different medical conditions are treatable by acupuncture, including drug addiction.

A Communication Pathway

The word acupuncture comes from the Latin “acus” for needle and “puncture” for insertion. What the ancient Chinese discovered was a communication pathway through the body that could be intercepted and manipulated by careful choice of where and how one inserted needles.

Imagine your own home electrical circuit overloading from too many devices being plugged in at once. The lights go out in the bathroom. You walk to a far wall of the house, or even to an outside wall, to flip a breaker in the breaker box and the light turns on again. In humans and animals, acupuncture points are like those breaker switches. When the right points are stimulated the body gets what it needs to function correctly.


When a patient comes to an acupuncturist with pain, emotional distress, or a malfunctioning organ, the acupuncturist pays attention to many different sources of information. For a private patient, the acupuncturist feels the person’s wrist pulse, looks at the person’s tongue, eyes, skin color and texture, notes the quality of the voice and the details of the person’s life history to make a diagnosis and form a treatment plan.

In a drug treatment setting, a dozen or more people might be scheduled for one hour to relax in chairs in the same room for their acupuncture. There isn’t time to collect as much data as in a private office, and it isn’t necessary. Inserting a few needles in specific sites in the ear immediately influences the patient’s immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, and hormonal system. The body pays attention to new signals that are cumulative, so over time it is easier for the person receiving acupuncture to notice what at first was subtle but then becomes more evident: a sense of peace, inner control, and self-reflection that compliment and ideally precede the psychological work done with professional counselors.

Not just Needles

Needles aren’t always necessary. Intervention may occur through laser light, pressure from fingers, and stimulation from magnets, or other methods. In a drug treatment program, acupuncture with needles and pressure from fingers, plant seeds, magnets, and metal beads are used to improve the balance of brain chemicals, improve the function of the liver, kidneys, lungs, and other organs of detoxification, and move the client toward inner healing by using the energy of group process. One name often used to describe this work is “acudetox.” Traditional acupuncturists have treated addiction for many centuries. What is new is a movement to standardize the acudetox protocol to a simple formula of five points in the ear. This allows even non-acupuncturist technicians to be highly successful in improving program outcomes.

Acupuncture in Drug Court

During the mid-1980s, the jails in Miami and other Florida cities were crowded with cocaine users. One judge on the 11th Circuit Court was given a year off the bench to find a solution. Judge Herbert Klein was impressed with the group acupuncture program at Lincoln Hospital run by psychiatrist Michael Smith, MD. Soon Smith was helping Klein and others, including former US Attorney General Janet Reno, design the country’s first Drug Court, which opened in Dade County, Florida, in 1989. In addition to acupuncture, the Drug Court included 12-Step meetings and counseling sessions as the carrot and time in jail as the stick to help nudge people into recovery.

Across the country in San Francisco, acupuncturist Pat Keenan remembered seeing Chinese doctors using surgical tape to stick plump black plant seeds called semen vaccariae on the ears of children in a clinic in Nanjing when she had studied there. The ear seeds were pressed as a form of acupressure to treat various ailments. Working in a public health clinic in a poor neighborhood, Pat decided to apply the same technique to drug-exposed babies. “The…semen viccariae were chosen because they are the right consistency and shape so they don’t irritate the baby’s skin,” wrote Pat in the clinic newsletter back in 1991. She chose three ear points commonly used in acupuncture: kidney, brain stem, and “shenmen,” a point used to increase endorphins. Babies, even rigid PCP-exposed infants, quickly responded, relaxing into quiet softness in her arms. Today, most acudetox programs include the application of seeds or magnetized metal beads on the surface of the ear, held in place with special tape that lasts for a week or two. Clients squeeze their own ears during the hours or days between acupuncture sessions.

How and Why Does It Work?

Whether with needle, seed, or magnet, what happens during acudetox is stimulation of a cranial -acupuncture addiction points – nerve branch in the ear. In fact, some practitioners complain it isn’t really “acupuncture” based on ancient Chinese theories of energy but rather “auriculotherapy” which is a more general term for treating the ear.

When needling, the five locations used are named Shenmen (Chinese for “spirit gate” and known to increase the body’s natural supply of opiates called endorphins), Sympathetic (which relaxes the sympathetic nervous system), and Kidney, Liver, and Lung (the three major detox organs). How do we know it works? In a 1999, retrospective cohort study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Michael Schwartz of Boston University looked at detoxification readmission rates of clients treated in outpatient and short-term residential treatment for substance-abuse detoxification, some with acupuncture, some not. No matter how he looked at the data, acupuncture clients were less likely to be readmitted for detoxification within six months. (“The value of acupuncture detoxification programs in a substance abuse treatment system,” Schwartz, M, Saitz, R., Mulvey K., Brannigan, P. School of Management, Boston University, MA 02215, USA, J Substance Abuse Treat. Dec;17(4):305-312, 1999

Non-Acupuncturist Detox Specialists

In some locations (Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington), non-acupuncturists, such as social workers, nurses, corrections officers, and case workers can learn to insert needles and, after a 70-hour training, can work as an Acupuncture Detoxification Specialist. Since these professionals are often already on staff, the cost of acupuncture within a community or private care facility can be radically reduced.

For information about becoming an acudetox specialist, contact the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association at