Acupuncture has been used as a therapeutic technique for thousands of years in China. Although introduced into the West relatively recently, it has gained popularity and frequently offered as a treatment option.

The procedure is based on the theory that an essential for good health is a balanced flow of a life energy (Ch’i) which is believed to travel through pathways (called meridians) in a person’s body. It’s believed that medical problems result from an imbalance of Ch’i. The goal of acupuncture is to insert thin needles into the patient’s body at various points on the meridians to remove blockages of Ch’i.

For the treatment of alcoholism in the West, needles are typically inserted at anywhere from three to five specific locations on the outer ear. This is known as auricular acupuncture. Practitioners believe that these spots occur on meridians leading to parts of the body, like the kidneys, lungs and liver, that are weakened over time from excessive alcohol consumption. Other locations on the body are also sometimes used.

Different schools of thought disagree about how many meridians there are, exactly where needles should be inserted, whether ying and yang should also be used, etc. However, a common belief is that different meridians connect to different organs. Other methods such as micro-acupuncture, manual acupuncture, electroacupuncture and acupressure are also commonly used. Many popular alternative healing methods are based on similar philosophies, including reflexolgy, reiki, shiatsu, and Qi Gong. Alcohol rehabs commonly offer acupuncture or related procedures.

The National Acupuncture Detoxication Association (NADA) protocol most often involves auricular acupuncture treatments given to large groups of patients who sit together quietly for 45 minutes. Alcohol and drug courts often use the NADA protocol as do prisons, hospitals, refugee camps, and in other venues around the world.

Advocates of acupuncture have suggested advantages of the procedure. These include:

  1. “As a non-verbal intervention, it helps in reaching resistant patients.
  2. It reduces anxiety and agitation while facilitating calm and receptive behavior.
  3. It helps develop an inner meditative core in even the most troubled and fearful persons.”1

Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years and has become popular in the West. However, medical research has found no evidence that it is helpful in treating alcohol or alcohol dependent persons. The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that acupuncture may help ease some pains. However, it warns that “many factors—like expectation and belief—that are unrelated to acupuncture needling may play important roles in the beneficial effects of acupuncture on pain.”2 In other words, acupuncture may be a placebo or act as a “sugar pill.” Although not directly related to alcoholism, the Center reports that “Acupuncture has been promoted as a smoking cessation treatment since the 1970s, but research has not shown that it helps people quit the habit.”

A review of the research evidence reported:

“Even though widely used in today's clinical practice, acupuncture has remained a controversial subject. Many reviews are currently available but most lack a critical stance and some are overtly promotional. The aim of this overview is to provide a balanced, critical analysis of the existing evidence. Some of the original concepts of traditional acupuncture are not supported by good scientific evidence. Several plausible theories attempt to explain how acupuncture works but none are proved beyond doubt. The clinical effectiveness of acupuncture continues to attract controversy. Many controlled clinical trials and numerous systematic reviews of these studies have been published. Considerable problems are encountered when interpreting these data. Heterogeneity is a significant drawback of both clinical trials and systematic reviews. Some of the controversies may be resolved through the use of the new 'placebo needles' which enable researchers to adequately control for placebo effects of acupuncture. The majority of studies using such devices fails to show effects beyond a placebo response. Acupuncture has been associated with serious adverse events but most large-scale studies suggest that these are probably rare. Nonserious adverse effects occur in 7-11% of all patients. In conclusion, acupuncture remains steeped in controversy. Some findings are encouraging but others suggest that its clinical effects mainly depend on a placebo response.”3

In spite of the lack of scientific medical or clinical evidence, the wide offering of the procedure in rehabs and other programs appears to be based on market demand (“give customers what they want”). For more about this problem, visit Alcohol / Drug Retreats & Rehabs: Often More about Money than Helping People.

Fortunately, there are may other options for those seeking either to abstain from alcohol or to reduce their consumption. These include Moderation Management, HAMS (Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support), LifeRing, Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training), Rational Recovery, and the Life Process Program.

These programs are based on scientific principles and evidence-based methods rather than tradition, philosophy, or faith.

Disclaimer: This website is informational only. It makes no suggestions or recommendations about alcohol, drinking, rehabs, programs, or any other matter and none should be inferred. Neither this website nor your host receives any compensation, directly or indirectly, from listing or describing any program. Such listing or description does not imply endorsement. [+]


  • Brewington, V., Smith, M. and Lipton, D. Acupuncture as a detoxification treatment: an analysis of controlled research. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 1994, 11, 289–307.
  • Bullock, M. L., Umen, A. J., Culliton, P. D. and Olander, R.T. Acupuncture treatment of alcoholic recidivism: a pilot study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 1987, 11, 292–295.
  • Bullock, M. L., Culliton, P. D. and Olander, R. T. Controlled trial of acupuncture for severe recidivist alcoholism. Lancet, 1989, i, 1435–1439.
  • Cho, Seung-Hun and Whang, Wei-Wan. Acupuncture for alcohol dependence: a systematic review. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2009, 33(8), 1305-1313.
  • Han JS, Trachtenberg AI, Lowinson JH. Acupuncture. In: Lowinson JH, Ruiz P, Millman RB, Langrod JG (eds). Substance Abuse, A Comprehensive textbook. Philadelphia: PA, 2005.
  • Kaptchuk TJ. Acupuncture: theory, efficacy, and practice. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2002 136(5), 374–383.
  • Kunz, S., Schulz, M., Lewitzky, M., Driessen, M., and Rau, H. Ear acupuncture for alcohol withdrawal in comparison with aromatherapy: a randomized-controlled trial. Alcoholism: Clinical: and Experimental Research, 2007, 31(3), 436-442.
  • Lewith, G. T. and Machin, D. On the evaluation of the clinical effects of acupuncture. Pain, 1983, 16, 111–127.
  • Margolin, Arthur. Acupuncture for substance abuse. Current Psychiatry Reports, 2003, 5, 333-339.
  • Otto KC. Acupuncture and substance abuse: a synopsis, with indications for further research. Am J Addict 2003;12:43–51.
  • Sapir-Weise, R. et al. Acupuncture in alcoholism treatment: a randomized out-patient study, Alcohol and Alcoholism, 1999, 34(4), 629-639.
  • Trumpler, F., et al. Acupuncture for alcohol withdrawal: a randomized controlled trial. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 2003, 38(4), 369-375.
  • Vincent, C. and Lewith, G. Placebo controls for acupuncture studies. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1995, 88, 199–202
  • Wen, H. L. Acupuncture and electrical stimulation (AES) outpatient detoxification. Modern Medicine of Asia, 1979, 15, 39–43.
  • Worner, T.M., et al. Acupuncture fails to improve treatment outcome in alcoholics. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1992, 30(2), 169-173.
Other Resources

Filed Under: Approaches