Substance Abuse Treatment

Auricular Acupuncture For Drug Addiction

Based on the techniques created by Michael Smith of Lincoln Detox Center in the South Bronx, NY., and the NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) protocol, Auricular Acupuncture has proven to be an effective method for the treatment of various types of substance abuse.

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 to his surprise their symptoms diminished as well.

It was then that acupuncture’s efficacy for the treatment of drug addiction were discovered and opened new avenues for research in the field of Addictionology.

Dr. Wen’s discovery attracted the attention of Dr. Michael Smith of Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, New York City. Dr. Smith was involved in Methadone treatment and was searching for an alternative treatment for heroin patients.

Dr. Smith started to use Dr. Wen’s technique and gradually refined it to the present five points protocol. Time and experience has shown that the use of these points can decrease the craving for drugs and alcohol, reduce withdrawal symptoms, relieve tension and help patients relax.

It should be understood that auricular acupuncture is only one component of substance abuse treatment. It should be used primarily as an adjunct to conventional methods of psychosocial rehabilitation including twelve-step programs, herbal medicine, counseling, peer support and, when needed, appropriate medical stabilization through psycho-pharmaceuticals.

When the term “Auricular Acupuncture” is used within the context of drug abuse rehabilitation, reference is made to acupuncture in the ear which corresponds to the protocol set by NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association). It does not refer to acupuncture on the earlobe which based on traditional Chinese Medicine methods for the treatment disease.

This distinction is important for acupuncturists who wish to work with substance abuse patients within the parameters outlined by State regulators for use in government operated facilities. Practitioners should not mislead themselves into thinking that they are practicing Chinese Medicine in this environment. There will not be many opportunities to do traditional pulse and tongue diagnosis and treatment base on differential diagnosis. This is more appropiate in private practice. There are a few facilities where acupuncturists are given more freedom to practice acupuncture as a healing art. However, most outpatient drug detox institutions have a large day to day clientele and due to time and personnel constraints, it becomes expedient to standardize the treatment protocol.

In fact, the demand for acupuncture within government operated drug rehab centers has increased to where a new type of practitioner has evolved: the so called “ADS” (Acupuncture Detox Specialist). To become an “ADS” one needs to complete seventy hours of training provided by NADA.

My training was at Lincoln Detox Center in the South Bronx. I must say that my understanding of acupuncture and appreciation for its effect on the human body, was enhanced by Dr. Smith and his assistant, Carlos Alvarez.

NADA currently advocates the use of five points located in the ear to attenuate the cravings and withdrawal symptoms experienced by addicts during stages of recovery.

These five points are:

  1. Sympathetic
  2. Shenmen
  3. Kidney
  4. Liver
  5. Lung

The question is often asked as to the underlying mechanism through which these points exert their effect on the patient. The number of possible answers is beyond the scope of this article and, honestly, no one really knows. 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.

From the Chinese Medicine perspective, one could delve into the role of Qi (Chee) and the effect that acupuncture stimulation has on it. This, however, calls for an understanding of the Chinese view of man’s relationship to his environment, the role of Yin/Yang energies, and other Chinese Medicine concepts that go beyond the scope of this article.

From the few days I spent at Lincoln Detox, I know that Dr. Smith’s five ear points work. The testimonies of hundreds of ex-addicts from Lincoln Detox and other similar institutions, reflect the treatment’s efficacy.