Acupuncture for Addiction Treatment

Naomi Carr
Morgan Blair
Written by Naomi Carr on 08 February 2024
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 09 February 2024

Addiction treatment can involve medicinal, psychological, and holistic approaches. One such approach is acupuncture, which has been used for thousands of years to treat a range of mental and physical health conditions and can be beneficial in the treatment of substance use disorders and other addictions.

Acupuncture for Addiction Treatment

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a technique based on ancient traditional Chinese medicine. It involves placing thin, metal needles into specific areas of the body, known as acupuncture points. Traditionally, acupuncture is believed to improve the flow of Qi, or energy, around the body. This is intended to treat injury and illness caused by disruptions to this flow.

Acupuncture has since been integrated into Western medicine and is regularly used as a holistic or complementary treatment for various conditions. Adaptations of acupuncture are also practiced, such as dry needling and the NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) protocol, which are based on a combination of ancient Chinese medicine and Western medicine.

The insertion of acupuncture needles is mostly or entirely painless and can be relaxing or energizing. Acupuncture is believed to impact nerves in the skin and muscles, stimulating the central nervous system. This causes the release of various chemicals around the body, impacting physical and mental well-being.

The benefits of acupuncture for addiction treatment and recovery

In 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on various conditions that could benefit from or be suitable for acupuncture treatment, including drug abuse. Since then, research into the use of acupuncture for substance use treatment has increased and several alternative acupuncture practices have been developed.

One such practice is the NADA protocol, which involves the insertion of acupuncture needles into five points in the ear. This can reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms for various substances, including alcohol, nicotine, and drugs, and can improve addiction treatment.

Acupuncture can provide many potential benefits for someone going through addiction treatment and the recovery process, including:

  • Reducing the severity of withdrawal symptoms
  • Preventing cravings
  • Preventing relapse
  • Improving mood
  • Reducing stress and anxiety
  • Improving sleep
  • Helping to recover from past trauma
  • Improving therapeutic relationships with professionals
  • Improving treatment engagement

Additionally, acupuncture is a safe intervention when applied correctly, with no side effects or dangers, so it can be safe to use for most people, including pregnant people. It can be fairly inexpensive, compared to other treatments, and is a simple procedure requiring a number of sessions over a few weeks or months. As such, it is not invasive or time-consuming and can be easily implemented into recovery treatment.

Is acupuncture therapy scientifically proven?

Evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture varies throughout the many scientific studies that have been completed. Some studies find little proof that it can reduce mental and physical health symptoms, while others suggest positive outcomes. The variation in these results may be due to several factors, including study designs, acupuncture points used, and types of acupuncture used.

Brain scans

Some studies show neurobiological changes occurring following acupuncture treatment, which indicates that the treatment has some physiological effect. Evidence gathered through neuroimaging, or brain scans, shows that acupuncture impacts mechanisms in the brain, including those that regulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which plays a large part in the development and reinforcement of addiction.

These scans show changes in activity in areas such as the amygdala and hypothalamus. These areas are involved in functions relating to emotions, motivation, and reward processing, suggesting that acupuncture can cause significant changes in mood and behavior.

Outcomes

Additionally, several studies have investigated the outcomes of individuals undergoing acupuncture treatment for mental health and substance use disorders, some with positive results. 

For example, a 2008 literature review of acupuncture on psychiatric symptoms indicates evidence of positive outcomes. This includes benefits for depression, depression during pregnancy, anxiety disorders, and mixed results for substance use disorders with some positive results for alcohol, cocaine, and heroin use.

A 2010 study on veterans with substance use disorders shows acupuncture helped reduce cravings and anxiety and improve the quality of life for a large percentage of participants.

A 2016 review of the NADA protocol includes several studies of individuals undergoing addiction treatment. It shows positive outcomes from NADA treatment in conjunction with other treatments, including reduced cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and anxiety.

These studies show evidence of the benefits of acupuncture treatment on mental health and substance use disorders and highlight the need for further research into its use and impact.

Acupuncture as part of a recovery treatment program

Addiction is a condition affecting various aspects of a person’s life, so treatment for substance use disorders must focus on more than just addictive behaviors. A holistic and comprehensive treatment program can be the most effective treatment for substance use disorders, which may involve medicinal, psychological, and holistic approaches.

Including acupuncture in a recovery treatment program can help improve mood, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms, and can increase motivation and willingness to engage in the various areas of treatment. This means that acupuncture can improve the chance of successful recovery when used alongside psychological and behavioral interventions.

Some treatment centers offer acupuncture as part of their treatment programs, along with other holistic therapies. However, it is not always included in addiction treatment programs, so may need to be accessed separately or through a private service. 

When searching for an acupuncturist, be sure to check their license and credentials to ensure they provide legitimate and safe treatments. Generally, acupuncturists in the US will have passed an exam with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

How much does acupuncture cost?

The cost of acupuncture will vary depending on the location, provider, and number of sessions required. Based on a 2019 analysis, a consultation session can cost on average between $45-150, with follow-up sessions costing on average $40-100 each.

Typically, acupuncture treatment for addiction will require several sessions, which can result in an overall cost of over $1000. Some insurance plans will cover part or all of this, but it is recommended to consult with your insurance provider to check this before commencing treatment.

Resources:

  1. National Health Service. (Reviewed 2023). Acupuncture. NHS. Retrieved from
  2. John Hopkins Medicine. (2024). Acupuncture. Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from
  3. Stuyt, E.B., Voyles, C.A., & Bursac, S. (2018). NADA Protocol for Behavioral Health. Putting Tools in the Hands of Behavioral Health Providers: The Case for Auricular Detoxification Specialists. Medicines (Basel, Switzerland), 5(1), 20. Retrieved from
  4. Lin, J.G., Chan, Y.Y., & Chen, Y.H. (2012). Acupuncture for the Treatment of Opiate Addiction. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2012, 739045. Retrieved from
  5. Stuyt, E.B., & Voyles, C.A. (2016) The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association Protocol, Auricular Acupuncture to Support Patients with Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Disorders: Current Perspectives. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 7, 169-180. Retrieved from
  6. Motlagh, F.E., Ibrahim, F., Rashid, R.A., Seghatoleslam, T., & Habil, H. (2016). Acupuncture Therapy for Drug Addiction. Chinese Medicine, 11, 16. Retrieved from
  7. Samuels, N., Gropp, C., Singer, S.R., & Oberbaum, M. (2008). Acupuncture for Psychiatric Illness: A Literature Review. Behavioral Medicine (Washington, D.C.), 34(2), 55–64. Retrieved from
  8. Grant, S., Kandrack, R., Motala, A., Shanman, R., Booth, M., Miles, J., Sorbero, M., & Hempel, S. (2016). Acupuncture for Substance Use Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 163, 1-15. Retrieved from
  9. Lee, M.Y., Lee, B.H., Kim, H.Y., & Yang, C.H. (2021). Bidirectional Role of Acupuncture in the Treatment of Drug Addiction. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 126, 382–397. Retrieved from
  10. Chang, B-H., Sommers, E., & Herz, L. (2010). Acupuncture and Relaxation Response for Substance Use Disorder Recovery. Journal of Substance Use, 15(6), 390-401. Retrieved from
  11. Volkow, N.D. (2020). Personalizing the Treatment of Substance Use Disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 177(2), 113-116. Retrieved from
  12. American Institute of Alternative Medicine. (2023). Essential Guide: Key Traits That Define a Good Acupuncturist. AIAM. Retrieved from
  13. Fan, A.Y., Wang, D.D., Ouyang, H., Tian, H., Wei, H., He, D., Gong, C., Wen, J., Jin, M., He, C., Alemi, S.F., & Rahimi, S. (2019). Acupuncture Price in Forty-One Metropolitan Regions in the United States: An Out-of-Pocket Cost Analysis Based on OkCopay.com. Journal of Integrative Medicine, 17(5), 315–320. Retrieved from

Activity History - Last updated: 09 February 2024, Published date:


Reviewer

Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 07 February 2024 and last checked on 09 February 2024

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan Blair

Reviewer

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