Acupuncture helps those with addiction, mental illness

Sometimes it’s hard for Sandra Bauer to stop shaking.
The 56-year-old Dover resident struggles with anxiety that can be hard to control. She takes medication and sees a specialist from Connections Community Support Programs’ Assertive Community Treatment team in Dover every month.

Last Tuesday, however, it was as if all that stress disappeared. Bauer felt at peace. Her mind was calm. But it wasn’t medication that helped her feel at ease. It was five needles carefully positioned in her ears.

Bauer experienced acupuncture detoxification.

Known as acu-detox, the therapy utilizes standard acupuncture techniques to relieve stress, withdrawal symptoms and anxiety common in people living with addiction and behavioral health issues.

“I was trying to keep thinking about the beach,” Bauer said. The relaxed feeling lasted for “quite a while,” she said.

Acu-detox therapy is making a comeback in Delaware’s substance abuse and mental health community. It is not new by any means, just uncommon. Though its roots are in Eastern medical philosophies, it’s been practiced in modern medicine off and on for nearly four decades. Experts stress that it’s not a standalone therapy, but used as a supplement to a person’s treatment plan.

Starting in the mid-90s, the Kent and Sussex County Detox program in Ellendale offered acu-detox for patients until the center closed after 15 years. Delaware’s only detox facility, NET Kirkwood Detox, offered the treatment, but has since discontinued it.

Staff at Connections are currently being trained in the therapy to treat people with substance abuse and mental health issues. It’s just another tool in their toolbox, said Cathy McKay, Connections’ president and chief executive officer.

The state’s drug epidemic has prompted officials to get creative with treatment options while securing millions of dollars in funding to counter the rising tide of drug use. Some of that money will go toward opening a new 16-bed detox center in Harrington, run by Connections, which will help people withdraw from alcohol and drugs. It is expected to open in August.

McKay said she would like at least three nurses trained in acu-detox so they can practice at the new facility and at other outpatient locations.

“There’s a lot of different ways for people to get clean and you want to offer all the options so that people can see what works best for them,” McKay said. “It’s our intention to use all means that are available, that are evidence-based and proven to work.”

How it works

While acupuncture can be done on any part of the body, acu-detox is a treatment specifically concentrated in the ears. Therapy is typically done with a group, but it can be useful in a one-on-one situation.

“The ear is a microcosm of the whole body,” explained Tita Gontang, a social worker for the state, acupuncturist and licensed acu-detox trainer. She led the training last Tuesday for the Connections community team in Dover that treated Bauer and others.

Trained in accordance to protocol from the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, Gontang worked at Ellendale years ago and has worked with local organizations to train staff.

The inner ear has five points that connect to bodily responses throughout the whole body, she said. The points are linked to “shen men,” the sympathetic nervous system, kidney, liver and lung.

Shen men represents a person’s chi, Gontang said, or their positive and negative energy. The sympathetic nervous system connects to a person’s fight or flight response and the kidney, liver and lungs represent organs that filter the body of toxins.

When touched by a needle, each point releases stress. The needles used to stimulate those points are fine and stainless steel – as thin as a strand of hair.

Think of the ear as a clock, Gontang said. An acu-detox specialist will place needles in the areas of 12 o’clock, 3, 6 and 12. They stay in the ear for about 30 to 45 minutes and fall out on their own.

Monique Boggs, 24, of Dover, was not at all impressed with the acupuncture session last Tuesday. She lives with bi-polar disorder and had never tried the acupuncture as an alternative to medication. The needles pricked too hard, she said, so she left the session early on.

“It was OK,” she said, but was unsure if she would go to another session..

The remaining patients at Connections kept the needles in their ears and drifted into a calming stupor after about 20 minutes.

Heads flopped down. Bauer opened and closed the palms of her hands and tilted her head upwards. Afterwards, Robert Bulson, 22, said, “It felt like my body was inside my body.”

Camden-Wyoming resident Lisa Parte, 50, closed her eyes to try to be as sensitive as possible to the acupuncture. Parte has insomnia, anxiety and admittedly “bad tempers.” She couldn’t get enough of the session.

“I get this real mellow feeling like I am in an open pasture,” Parte said.

Cheyenne Luzader, the integrative health coordinator for Beebe Healthcare, has been leading a small acu-detox program for smoking cessation over the last six or seven years.

In terms of addiction, nicotine is one of the most difficult to stop, she said. Luzader works with as many 10 patients a year for eight weeks.

“It’s part of a whole other protocol. Acupuncture is just one of the coping mechanisms,” she said.

Even so, Stephanie Raffer, a 35-year smoker, credits Luzader’s acu-detox with helping her finally break the habit. Nicotine lozenges and other cessation tools had never really helped, she said. Going cold turkey was too difficult.

She had acu-detox sessions once a week for about three months.

“You kind of close your eyes and you just wander away,” said Raffer, 63, of Rehoboth. “I found it very relaxing, which helped keep me from reaching for my cigarettes.”

Going forward

According to the state, there are four licensed detox specialists in Delaware. Trainees can have a background in medicine or social work, but they must have 70 hours of training under their belts, Gontang said.

Jaimie Stafford, pschiatric nurse practitioner for Connections’ Dover Act team, studied the benefits of acu-detox during her master’s program at Johns Hopkins University and is excited to train with Gontang.

There’s also an economic benefit, she said.

It costs $30 for a box of 500 needles. To treat close to 5,000 people five times a week for 50 weeks, it would only amount to a little over $4,200, she said.

Stafford said she was drawn to the practice because it engages a person holistically and can help treat a dual diagnosis of substance abuse disorder and mental illness.

For substance abuse treatment in particular, it can help with withdrawal symptoms in a different way than opiate replacement therapy like methadone or suboxone can. Potentially people will have shorter says in rehab, she said.

“There’s no stigma attached with this,” Stafford said. “It’s something everyday people do.”

At the same time, there’s no movement away from using medications, McKay said. Each treatment plan has to be individualized. Medication management works for some, talk therapy works for others.

“Nobody wants to take methadone,” she said. “I think you have to use all the tools in the tool box.”