Pilot Program Uses Acupuncture to Help Treat Addiction
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008; B01
As New Age music fills the room, 19 men and women settle into four rows of plastic chairs. They swab their ears with alcohol towelettes and sit quietly. Slowly, another man and a woman move among the rows. With quiet precision, they insert five sharp needles into each of the people's ears. Nobody flinches when the needles hit the flesh. In fact, some of the men and women have tiny grins on their faces.
This is addiction treatment, Montgomery County style. These people are participating in a pilot program that uses acupuncture, an ancient Chinese medical practice, to help treat addiction. More than a dozen people a day are volunteering to be stuck with needles as part of the county's acudetox program, which began last month and is one of a handful in the Washington region.
Karlys Wright, 37, was one of the first to arrive for the early morning acudetox session. She said she almost didn't give acupuncture a try because she doesn't like needles. But in a brief time, she has become a fan of the New Age treatment.
"I feel rejuvenated," the former administrative assistant from Rockville said. "I don't know how to explain it."
In the fall, Montgomery County Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) persuaded her colleagues to spend $20,000 on a pilot program that would incorporate acupuncture into treatments for drug addiction. Acupuncture is used as a strategy to calm and relax patients before they take part in other treatments, such as group therapy.
"It's cutting edge," she said. "There's no question about that."
The Chinese have used acupuncture for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including chronic plan and infertility. Its use as a strategy for treating addiction is gaining popularity in communities across the country, Trachtenberg said. Programs are in place from California to Florida. In the Washington region, acupuncture is used in addiction programs in Baltimore and Fairfax County.
The hard science behind acupuncture remains elusive. But those who run treatment programs say that, anecdotally, they see a marked change in the attitude of patients, who are calmer and more receptive to therapy.
The Fairfax program has been in place since the late 1990s. Although the county has not done official research on the method, Larry Peacock, director of the Fairfax Detoxification Center, said patients say acupuncture has helped reduce their alcohol and drug cravings and made it easier for them to sleep.
"One of the things that we did and have seen is a reduction of incidents with clients arguing; the anxiousness and agitation levels are lowered," Peacock said.
Larry Gamble, manager of outpatient addiction services, behavioral health and crisis services for the Montgomery Department of Health and Human Services, says he initially had doubts about sticking people with needles. But after taking part in a session, Gamble has become a convert.
"We've been amazed at how some of the clients have been able to slow themselves down and be more focused and be more open when they go into individual group therapy," he said. "Clients say they sleep better and feel less stressed."
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine are conducting more than 100 studies examining the effect of acupuncture on a range of problems, including autism, hot flashes and obesity.
But there is still debate in the scientific community over acupuncture's effectiveness as a treatment for some medical conditions, including drug addiction. Acupuncture isn't the only alternative therapy officials have used to help people in Montgomery's drug treatment program. About four years ago, Gamble said, they also began offering meditation and yoga.
Still, there are skeptics.
As Linda Washington, one of a handful of staff members who have been trained to administer the treatment, moved to shut the door so she could begin a session recently, a man stuck his head in to survey the scene.
"Coming to acupuncture?" Washington said, a hopeful note in her voice.
"No," the man said. "I'm too scared."
Washington, a psychiatric nurse and licensed psychotherapist, said she first saw acupuncture being used as a strategy for treating addiction when she worked with a program in Prince George's County in 2001. She said patients who did acupuncture as a prelude to their therapy sessions appeared calmer and more focused. They also seemed to make quicker progress through therapy than those who did not do acupuncture, she said.
With music playing in the background, Washington and Dave Wurzel, a certified trainer with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, slowly made their way around the room. In this particular form of acupuncture, auricular acupuncture, five needles are inserted in each of the clients' ears. At first glance, the needles look like straight pins, but they are thinner and more flexible.
Once the two completed their rounds, they dimmed the lights. After a while, the only sound was of music mixed with deep rhythmic breathing. The tranquility was broken only briefly when someone became so relaxed he began to snore loudly.
The clients, some of whom are in detoxification treatment by court order or are referred by social workers, are a mix of races, sexes and ages. Some are homeless; others are mentally ill. Some are hard-core drug users addicted to heroin or cocaine, Gamble said.
Trachtenberg is optimistic that the one-year pilot will show positive results. She notes that larger counties, including Miami-Dade, Fla., have had success with the approach. In Miami-Dade, about 85 percent of the people in county treatment programs do acupuncture.
"Medicine has really changed in this county, and many people really are much more comfortable with an integrated approach to care," she said. "More and more Americans are using alternative therapies."
Wurzel, who trained the staff in Montgomery and is proprietor of the Chi Farm, said acupuncture is not a cure-all in itself but is designed to complement other types of treatment a person is receiving for addiction.
Oliver Oree, 51, recently returned for his second session under the needle. He doesn't quite get the science behind the needles, but that's just fine -- he's willing to take it on faith.
Said Oree: "I don't know what it is or how it works, but I feel like a better person."