5 September 2019

Acupuncture could help treat alcoholics, according to a study. Researchers in South Korea found rats had suffered less withdrawal symptoms after undergoing the ancient practice.

Tests revealed that acupuncture 'restored' pathways in the brain believed to be impaired in those dependent on alcohol. Acupuncture, traditionally from China, uses tiny needles inserted into parts of the body, most often to relieve pain.

The researchers at Daegu Haany University believe their findings could implicate treatment strategies. But a sceptical expert today slammed the study and said the evidence supporting acupuncture remains too weak.

Acupuncture has become more popular as many Western practitioners offer it for health conditions as well as general wellbeing.

The NHS sometimes offer it as complementary medicine for migraines, joint pain and chronic pain in line with guidance from health watchdogs. 

The traditional view is energy, or 'Qi', flows through 12 channels in the body and if the flow is interrupted it can cause ill-health.

Using very thin needles at 'trigger points' restores the flow of energy and relieves pain, advocates say. 

The latest study, published in Science Journals, suggests acupuncture is able to change how the brain reacts to alcohol.

Researchers, led by Suchan Chang, administered ethanol – the chemical compound in alcohol that causes intoxication – to rats over a period of 16 days. 

This made the rats dependent on alcohol, and suffering from withdrawal symptoms when it was kept from them.  

The researchers recorded when withdrawal was strongest. For example, tremors spiked around three hours after a ‘drink’.

A control group of rats were also studied. They were given the same diet and no alcohol. 

The alcohol dependent rats underwent acupuncture on the wrist for 20 seconds two hours after alcohol.

The wrist point, known as HT7, is believed to fire up neurons in the brain thought to be dampened in people with alcohol dependency.

Results showed these neurons significantly increased in number and activity, more so than the healthy rats, slashing the need for alcohol.

The alcohol-dependent rats had less withdrawal symptoms after having acupuncture and they didn't seek alcohol as much as before.   

The authors wrote: 'These results suggest acupuncture may provide a novel, potential treatment strategy for alcohol use disorder by direct activation of the brain pathway.' 

But Dr Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, was critical of the study.

He told MailOnline: 'There are many reasons why I am not impressed with this investigation. 

'Firstly, it is an animal experiment, and we know that such research is often not reproducible in human patients. 

'Secondly, the researchers knew which animal received which intervention; therefore they could easily have influenced the results.' 

'Thirdly, the study comes from Korea, and we know from several independent reviews that acupuncture studies from Asia are rarely negative. This means we must doubt their reliability.'

Dr Ernst added: 'Most importantly, the current best evidence fails to convincingly demonstrate that acupuncture is effective for alcohol withdrawal.  

'In other words, this new study is at odds with what we already know, and my advise is to never trust a single study but rely on what the totality of the evidence tells us.' 

Acupuncture has emerged as a treatment for alcohol dependency in recent years, but it has little scientific support.

The World Health Organization listed a number of conditions in which they say acupuncture has been proven effective in 2003, with alcohol or substance dependency falling under 'may help but more evidence is needed'.

Human studies have shown mixed results for the effects of acupuncture on reducing clinical symptoms of alcohol addiction. 

This could be due to it not working, or variations in how acupuncture was administered.  


The animals underwent acupuncture on the wrist for 20 seconds two hours after alcohol consumption. 

The wrist point, known as HT7, is believed to activate neurons in the brain which have are believed to be reduced in people with alcohol dependency.

It has been shown that chronic alcohol consumption reduces β-endorphin neuron activity.

There also appears to be less movement of β-endorphin in the brain into a region called the nucleus accumbens, which play a role in our reward and stress responses.

The researchers found a significant elevation in β-endorphin levels in the alcohol-dependent rats, and more firing of neurons into the nucleus accumbens.

The rats showed less withdrawal symptoms of tremors and anxiety after having acupuncture.

Acupuncture significantly reduced how often the rats’ sought ethanol, known as self-administration. This was recorded by how often the rats pressed a button.

The researchers noted acupuncture at a different location of the wrist, the LI5 point, did not have an effect.

This suggests the tremors were not reduced by acupuncture itself – as acupuncture can be used to reduce motor impairment – and instead reduces the tremors by changing activity in the brain. 

Source: Daily Mail