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Acupuncture & The Opioid Epidemic

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

The History

Acupuncture's introduction into American mainstream was largely fueled by radical people of color in the early 1970’s. At the time, acupuncture was being used to treat drug detoxification at Lincoln Hospital in South Bronx, New York City. Revolutionary groups like Black Panther Party, Young Lords, and White Lightning demanded better access to healthcare as they witnessed their communities disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes under the facade of America’s “War on Drugs” and New York’s Rockefeller drug laws.

With no other way to address the lack of medical care in their communities, local revolutionaries, healthcare workers and physicians organized a grassroots take over of Lincoln Hospital to demand the creation of a drug-detoxification center. Within a couple of days, hundreds of people stood in line seeking treatment for addiction. Within a month, hospital administration had come to terms with the immediate need for the services and established a drug treatment program that became Lincoln Detox Center.

Along with services such as counseling, welfare advocacy, legal assistance, and job placement support, the Center provided acupuncture for drug detoxification and addiction. Inspired by analgesia research out of Hong Kong, physicians and community members treated patients undergoing detox with just the Lung point in the ear. Amazed by the effects of one ear acupuncture point, many went on to study acupuncture. Building upon the success at Lincoln Hospital, Dr. Michael Smith developed a 5-point auricular acupuncture treatment known as the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) protocol.

NADA Protocol

The NADA protocol has since expanded to be used in the treatment of mental health and emotional trauma. It is used in over 2,000 programs and has been taught to over 10,000 health professionals. In 2011, the Bureau of Justice Assistance produced a summary of research finding “patients who receive acupuncture services experience reduced cravings and symptoms of withdrawal and are more amenable to treatment services than patients who do not receive acupuncture. Patients who are more open to treatment may then have a greater chance of achieving remission and potentially avoid more frequent relapses.”

Today, the opiate epidemic is at the forefront of a national discussion. Opiate addiction is no longer just a problem in intercities; it has spread to rural towns and is rooted in the middle class. According to the Surgeon General’s 2016 Report on Addiction, only 10% of addicted drug users receive specialized treatment. This is due to insufficient involvement by primary care providers, shortages in the supply of specialty care, and unaffordable treatment options. The report notes substance abuse is influenced by and influences other mental and physical health conditions and "integration can help address health disparities, reduce health care costs for both patients and family members, and improve general health outcomes.”

Sometimes, it helps to look back in order to move forward. The NADA protocol is simple, extremely affordable, and clinically proven to be effective with no serious side effects. In addition to reducing cravings and symptoms of withdrawal, these tiny needles tap into something deeper, bridging the gap between primary health care and the treatment of other mental and physical conditions. Acupuncture is used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, low energy, neurotransmitter and hormone imbalances, and a myriad of physical pain conditions. Sadly, acupuncture for detoxification and addiction is completely inaccessible for many; most treatment programs don't offer it as an option and outside of these programs the cost of treatment is often a significant barrier. Opportunely, there is a growing infrastructure in place for addicts to receive the myriad of benefits acupuncture provides.

The Role of Acupuncture in America’s Opiate Epidemic

Twenty-one states have adopted legislation that supports the training and practice of Acupuncture Detox Specialists (ADS). ADS law allows non-acupuncturist health providers to be trained in the NADA protocol, often under the supervision of a licensed acupuncturist or medical doctor and to practice the NADA protocol in various settings. These laws make it possible for mental health programs, detoxification centers, and organizations working with emotional trauma to provide acupuncture within the framework and budget of their existing programs and staff.

In states where acupuncture is covered by Medicaid, folks have more access to treatment that they would not be able to afford otherwise. Acupuncturists accepting Medicaid are valuable resources to doctors and patients seeking to alleviate pain without the use of opiate pain-killers. In patients who have already developed dependency to opiates, acupuncturists accepting Medicaid would be able to use the NADA protocol as a part of the recovery process.

Another way acupuncture is becoming more accessible in the treatment of drug treatment is through the growth of community acupuncture. The People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA) is a multi-stakeholder cooperative, with 700 acupuncturist members who share a mission: to provide affordable, accessible, effective treatments in a communal setting. POCA clinics charge on a sliding scale of $15-50 per treatment, giving patients the opportunity to pay what they can afford and making acupuncture more accessible to the working-class.

If we want to bring acupuncture to the forefront of the fight against opiates, we need to improve access to affordable acupuncture care. Acupuncture, and more specifically the NADA protocol, is an effective adjunct to standard addiction treatment. It addresses the gap between primary health care and the treatment of other mental and physical conditions, gives addicts a sense of power and choice in their healing journey, and provides more treatment options to our towns devastated by overdoses.

Carlos Alvarez, in Newsday October 7, 1992


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Bondi, Mason. The Lincoln Story, National Acupuncture Detox Association,

Carter, Kenneth et al. “NADA Ear Acupuncture: An Adjunctive Therapy to Improve and Maintain Positive Outcomes in Substance Abuse Treatment.” Ed. Scott J. Hunter. Behavioral Sciences 7.2 (2017): 37. PMC. Web. 4 Feb. 2018.

Howe, Neil. “America's Opioid Crisis: A Nation Hooked.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 Nov. 2017,

Keane, Helen. “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, OFFICE OF THE SURGEON GENERAL Washington, DC, USA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016 382 Pp. Online (Gre.” Drug and Alcohol Review, vol. 37, no. 2, 2018, pp. 282–283., doi:10.1111/dar.12578.

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Merica, Dan. “What Trump's Opioid Announcement Means.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 Oct. 2017,


United States, Congress, Bureau of Justice Assistance. “Frequently Asked Questions Series: Effectiveness of Acupuncture as an Adjunct to Substance Abuse Treatment: Summary of Recent Research Findings.” Frequently Asked Questions Series: Effectiveness of Acupuncture as an Adjunct to Substance Abuse Treatment: Summary of Recent Research Findings, 2011, pp. 1–5.

Yang, Chae Ha, Bong Hyo Lee, and Sung Hoon Sohn. “A Possible Mechanism Underlying the Effectiveness of Acupuncture in the Treatment of Drug Addiction.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 5.3 (2008): 257–266. PMC. Web. 4 Feb. 2018.



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