Are you or someone you love suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism? Have you tried all conventional methods of treatment but yet to find one that works for you? In this post, we look at an alternative type of addiction treatment: ear acupuncture. With many physical and psychological benefits, ear acupuncture is slowly becoming one of the most unorthodox types of addiction therapy in modern cultures.
Table of Contents
History of the NADA Protocol
The use of auricular acupuncture to assist with behavioural health and addiction, in particular, has been in use for quite a while. However, it began gaining steady ground due to research reviews within the last thirty years.
In 1972 a surgeon in Hong Kong discovered the connection between ear acupuncture and lessening of withdrawal symptoms for heroin and opium addicts. Since then, there have been multiple studies on the subject.
The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) 3 to 5-point protocol for auricular acupuncture in behavioural health was created in New York at the Lincoln Hospital.
NADA was formed in 1985, and clinicians were trained on the protocol. In addition to treating addiction withdrawal, it also is used to help with various other mental health issues, including assisting veterans with addiction and insomnia. 
How Acupuncture for Addiction Works
The five points of the ear that are targeted during auricular acupuncture connect to the following areas of the body and improve their functions:
- Lung Point
- Liver Point
- Kidney Point
- The Sympathetic/Autonomic Point (nervous system)
- The Shen Men Point (decreases anxiety)
Needles usually remain in place for between thirty and forty minutes. During that time, immediate calming effects are seen.
How is it Different from Normal Acupuncture?
Ear acupuncture stimulates endorphins in the brain and assists with both detoxification and addiction. The primary way in which it differs from the classic form of acupuncture is by creating a micro-system within the ear that corresponds to different areas of the body.
In standard acupuncture, the area of the body that needs to be cleared or healed would be targeted directly. In the case of auricular acupuncture scientists throughout the last several generations have been able to pinpoint which sites of the ear will impact areas of the body most affected by addiction.
What Happens During the Treatment?
Tiny needles, usually five of them, are inserted into specific points of the ear. There is an almost immediate sense of calm that settles over the patient, and they can sit in a chair with their feet up, resting in a meditative state for the duration of their treatment. 
The lights are usually lowered to facilitate mental stillness. This can last between thirty and forty minutes. During that time, heart rate and blood pressure are reduced.
Can Acupuncture Help with Addiction?
Acupuncture is one of the most affordable treatment options available that provide significant immediate improvements without the need for years of therapy or subscription medications—altering the body’s chemical balance does all of the work.
One of the ways that drugs can become so addictive is through creating euphoric states. Acupuncture is believed to cause this reaction to lessen when drugs are taken, which makes the “high” less pleasant and assists with other therapies to help a person overcome their cravings.
More research is needed on the subject, and the direct connection is not entirely known. However, it is believed that acupuncture helps with addiction through inhibiting the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurons along with upping the release of dopamine.
What are the Benefits of Ear Acupuncture for Addiction?
There are multiple reported positive side effects of causing auricular acupuncture to treat addiction. It works best when used alongside with other tried and true methods (e.g., counselling, 12-step programmes, etc.).
A sense of calm during the treatment is only one aspect. Below is a comprehensive list of ways that acupuncture has been shown to benefit people working through addiction:
- Improved sense of well-being
- A decrease in stress levels
- Improved sleeping patterns
- Less intense panic attacks
- A reduction of withdrawal symptoms
- A reduction in anxiety levels
- A greater sense of calm
- Feeling refreshed and re-energized
- Increase in feelings of cooperation
- Increased relaxation
- A decrease in hostility and mood swings
- Feeling more in control
- Decreased need for subscribed medications
Research on Ear Acupuncture
The research is significantly mixed with many results for all kinds of addictions from alcohol and heroin to cocaine and smoking. Studies have been done for them all, but auricular acupuncture seems to be hit and miss depending on factors that are not entirely known. Some studies have shown it to be beneficial for the treatment of alcohol others have reported no change.
One thing that almost every study has in common is the finding “that auricular acupuncture has an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect when applied to healthy volunteers.”  This makes it an excellent way to decrease stress and anxiety in most mental health patients and especially in those suffering from withdrawal.
Patients have self-reported the following positive outcomes.
- Decreased need for the addictive substance
- Increased sense of relaxation and well-being
- Increased sense of peace and other positive physical effects
These have yet to be fully proven in scientific studies. There needs to be more research done on the topic to explore the threads of causation fully, and any negative or positive effects ear acupuncture may have on the typical person.
Use of Acupuncture in Addiction Treatment Programmes
Acupuncture is used in conjunction with other treatments and goes hand in hand with support groups, one-on-one therapy, and other behavioural health remedies. It is most prevalent in centres that focus on holistic treatment. It should not be used as the only treatment someone gets for withdrawal or addiction symptoms.
NADA Using Beads and Seeds
Acupuncture needles are the most common tools used in auricular acupuncture, but beads and seeds are also used. Traditionally Vaccaria seeds were used, but now there are ceramic and metal beads. They work by being placed on the specific ear points and then massage for several minutes at a stretch throughout the day. 
When using seeds, check daily for signs of allergies or other irritation such as swelling, redness, tenderness, and soreness. If you notice any of those, then stop using the seeds.
There are also magnetic beads that can be used to stimulate the points. More research needs to be done on the actual use of magnets. They do not have the same long-standing historical data provided by studies into the Vaccaria seeds or traditional needles.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below we have answered some of the most commonly asked questions surrounding ear acupuncture for addiction:
1. Will the Process Hurt?
If you are in an addiction treatment facility or are being seen by a certified technician, then there will be no pain beyond the light pinch of the needles. There are breathing techniques that are used to make even that as painless as possible.
2. Will the Needles Make Me Bleed?
The needles do not cause bleeding while being inserted. Still, sometimes when they are taken out, there are blood spots. You will be given a cotton ball to press against the area.
3. What is the Actual Step-by-Step Process?
Before your first session, you will sign a consent waiver, which will then be verbally reiterated every time after. Then the technician will check your ear to determine the right placement points before beginning. Then you will do the following.
- They will have you wipe down your ear and hands
- They will insert the needles while coaching you through breathing techniques to make this step as pain-free as possible.
- You will then sit quietly for thirty to forty minutes. This can take place in a room with just you and the technician, or you may be in a group setting.
- The needles will be taken out.
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Keith stopped using drugs and drinking alcohol more than 10 years ago. He now spends a lot of time writing and editing content for this website. His mission is to assist people who are also looking to embrace addiction recovery. Keith believes a key way to accomplish this goal is through his writing.