Acupuncture is used extensively, and worldwide, in substance misuse treatment centres. This stems from the development of a simple 5-point auricular acupuncture protocol at New York’s Lincoln Hospital in the 1970’s, originally for drug users but subsequently extended to tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances and behaviours. The protocol was designed to operate within Western health settings and mutual peer support systems, not as an isolated treatment.
In general, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting physical and emotional well-being. Stimulation of certain acupuncture points has been shown to affect areas of the brain that are known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry (Wu 1999).
Acupuncture may help relieve symptoms of drug withdrawal by:
normalising the release of dopamine in the mesolimbic system. This reduces the over-stimulating effects of abused drugs and modifies behaviours associated with addiction such as those around desire and reward. Several brain neurotransmitter systems, for example serotonin, opioid and GABA, are implicated in this (Lee 2009a, Yang 2008, Zhao 2006)
reducing anxiety (Samuels 2008). Acupuncture can alter the brain’s mood chemistry, reducing serotonin levels (Zhou 2008) and increasing endorphins (Han 2004) and neuropeptide Y levels (Lee 2009b; Cheng 2009);
modulating postsynaptic neuronal activity in the nucleus accumbens and the striatum to reduce nicotine addiction (Chae 2004) and increasing corticotrophin-releasing factor to attenuate anxiety-like behaviour following nicotine withdrawal (Chae 2008)