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Trials of acupuncture for drug dependence: a recommendation for hypotheses based on the literature




After initial promising research into acupuncture for withdrawal from drugs of dependence, two large negative trials were published in 2002 and the use of acupuncture in US rehabilitation facilities fell. However, subsequently it has been maintained, despite a lack of support from systematic reviews. This suggests a mismatch between research and clinical observation, which could be due to the acupuncture technique used, choice of controls or outcome measures. This study aims to explore the mismatch.


An exploratory review of all 48 clinical trials on alcohol, cocaine, nicotine or opioid dependence included in current reviews.


Studies with sham controls (that could be active) were less likely to be positive (33%) than those with non-acupuncture controls (75%). Positive results were more likely when measuring craving (56%) or withdrawal symptoms (58%) than when measuring abstinence (31%) or attrition (31%). Three treatment variables appeared to be associated with positive results: (1) body acupuncture, used in 13 studies, was associated with positive outcomes for craving and withdrawal symptoms but not for abstinence or attrition; (2) electroacupuncture, used in seven studies, was associated with positive results with all four outcomes; and (3) bilateral needling in 20 studies was associated with effects on abstinence, craving and withdrawal symptoms.


The current evidence suggests that acupuncture may have some effects on drug dependence that have been missed because of choice of outcome in many previous studies, and future studies should use outcomes suggested by clinical experience. Body points and electroacupuncture, used in the original clinical observation, justify further research.

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