Acupuncture for Medication Withdrawal

By: Amanda Gawrysz, L.Ac, MSOM

Have you been told about the effects of eliminating your psychiatric medications? Detoxing from medication can be a very uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating experience. People are not often offered much for withdrawal support, which leaves individuals “white knuckling” through a rollercoaster of physical, emotional, and psychological distress. Not to mention, the psychological aspect that comes along with the decision to stop taking a medication that can be terrifying. Life may feel like an eternity as each moment passes during a medication taper experience. Utilizing acupuncture can help achieve a state of harmony during this process and promote a level of balance in your body that minimizes the intensity of these symptoms.

Acupuncture is an under utilized modality that can help ease the emotional, mental, and physical manifestations during this time. The body is in a state of disharmony and shock from the absence of certain chemicals that it was accustomed to receiving. It needs time to return back to its homeostasis. There is a real sense of urgency when in the transition period of a tapering plan and acupuncture can make this transition less intense.  

Acupuncture ultimately helps restore balance through the stimulation of specific points. By stimulating these points, we improve the movement of Qi (energy) and of blood to help relieve pain, increase circulation, stimulate the liver, and speed up lymphatic drainage to ease the negative effects of withdrawal. Your practitioner will target specific meridians and acupoints that are connected to your specific withdrawal symptoms and bodily imbalances.

Acupuncture during medication withdrawal can help with agitation and restlessness, muscle aches and pains, insomnia, nausea, vertigo and dizziness, headaches, depression, temperature fluctuations, and what patients describe as “brain zaps.” A rebound effect may also be experienced during tapering where the original symptoms return and are worse than they were before.

Many are unaware that endorphins are released from the brain during acupuncture. Endorphins are our natural pain killers which also have a calming and positive effect on our mood. The release of endorphins also help relieve those pesky body aches that may be experienced. Using acupuncture, you can take advantage of the body’s natural chemicals to calm your brain and provide relief that will promote staying sober.

Withdrawal can cause uncomfortable body temperature changes, especially from alcohol and opiates. Alcohol usually causes an increase in temperature while opiates may cause fluctuations between sweating and feeling cold. A study has demonstrated that in combination with electrical stimulation acupuncture reduced this unpleasant withdrawal side effect.

Acupuncture has been known for centuries to help relieve nausea and vomiting from pregnancy, chemotherapy, and postoperative cases. Medication withdrawal is no different. Acupuncture speeds up the elimination process and improves detoxification pathways to allow the chemicals from medications to be expelled out of the body more efficiently.

In the case of experiencing depressive symptoms from alcohol, opiates, or even antidepressant withdrawal is common. In Chinese Medicine, depression causes a stagnation or seizing up of liver energy. These drugs falsely stimulate the energy from the liver causing it to flow more freely throughout the body. Once these drugs are stopped, that liver energy once again becomes constrained based on the Chinese Liver System. Additionally, your Liver energy can move erratically when these medications are stopped causing something called “internal wind” in Chinese Medicine. Internal wind is a sense of movement where there should be stillness. This internal movement is similar to akathisia and is also considered to be a rebound reaction. This effect manifests symptoms such as dizziness, vertigo, restlessness, tremors, and the brain zaps.  

The current common approach to medication elimination sets us up for failure. The process of medication tapering can feel overwhelming, discouraging, and impact our mental and physical body’s to a point where we decide it is not worth the effort. Acupuncture is built upon a foundation of ancient knowledge that can promote balance in your body and provide you with the stability that you need to take your withdrawal head-on and minimize the impact of resulting physical symptoms. Psychiatric medications can have an enormously positive impact on an individual’s life.  When a person is ready to move on without those medications, it is crucial that there is support provided to create a confident and successful transition toward independence.