The smell of smoke in my clinic is not unusual, and sometimes the air is filled with it. We’re not smokers, but we burn a lot of moxibustion. Called “moxa” for short, these are sticks of mugwort and other herbs that are burned to get a hot coal, which is then passed over certain spots on the patient to help move the blood and qi. This is thought to assist the body in its healing process for various pains and to relieve general stagnation.
The smell of tobacco smoke, however, is unusual, so when Maggie first came to see me, I knew right away she was a smoker. The odor surrounded her and soon filled the room. But she was in my office, ready to tackle her problem.
“I heard acupuncture can help to stop smoking and with other addictions,” she said. “That’s right,” I replied. “All you need to do is add a little willpower.” To that she smiled and said, “That’s what I’m deficient in.”
Maggie’s use of the term “deficient” had me wondering if she might have had previous experience with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners. It’s a word we use often. And indeed, she had.
“I’ve been trying to quit for years, but now I’m really ready,” she said. She told me that the barrage of news about how many organs are affected by smoking had started to get her attention. “I’m only 40, I wake up coughing every morning, and lots of mucus comes up,” Maggie said. “This can’t be good.”
Research Shows Promise
The practice of using acupuncture for addictions has a long history. Acupuncture was used in China to treat opium addiction, and the Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, New York, was a pioneer with the treatments for addiction in this country, starting in 1974. Practitioners there treat as many as 300 patients a day for substance abuse, including tobacco addiction.
In the United States alone, more than 300 substance abuse programs offer acupuncture treatments as an important part of the protocol. Some scientific studies show minimal results, but others have documented higher success rates in treating addictions.
A big challenge has been trying to design a study that incorporates an effective placebo group. One common practice is to place needles into volunteers in the placebo group, but not on the exact traditional points. This is called a “sham treatment.” In one 1982 study, 16 pairs of patient volunteers were matched according to age, sex and severity of smoking habit. In this study, no difference in cigarette consumption was seen between the groups.
Good results were obtained in a study reported in a Swiss medical journal in 2004. In this study, 249 patients who had undergone ear acupuncture for smoking cessation in a Swiss clinic between 1985 and 1998 were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their smoking habits before and after treatment. The 41 percent success rate reported is higher than most orthodox treatment methods. The researchers said men were able to quit more easily than women, and patients living in nonsmoking households or who had smoked more than 20 cigarettes per day had better results. People who said they smoked from nervousness had a lower success rate than those who said they smoked because of boredom. The acupuncture treatments were cost-effective and had few side effects.
A recent meta-analysis that looked at most of the published studies on orthodox smoking cessation treatment methods concluded that a tricyclic antidepressant was the most effective, with a 24 percent success rate, but that was based on only one study. Nicotine patches, inhalers, tablets and counseling are often used. Success rates for these are about 7 to 20 percent, with nicotine tablets being the most effective.
Maggie’s Treatment Plan
Maggie started acupuncture treatments and, after a diagnosis, I found she had spleen qi deficiency. This relates to weak digestion, low energy and possible immune imbalance, according to TCM.
I used classic ear points for the spleen, to support the kidney system, lung system, sympathetic nervous system and a point called shen men, to calm the spirit. These points are commonly used, but I added some other acupuncture points on the legs, such as stomach 36, in order to help support her digestion and immune system.
In my practice, I stress a holistic approach. Maggie and I had a number of conversations about the benefit of adding some dietary supplements, such as folic acid and other B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and antioxidant vitamins C, E and D. Recent studies show these nutrients help protect against cancer and heart disease, which are more common among smokers. Acting as a health coach as well as an acupuncturist, I strongly encouraged Maggie to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to her diet.
With Maggie, as with many patients seeing a licensed acupuncturist for help with smoking cessation, herbal prescriptions almost always are added to the acupuncture treatments. This combination makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the acupuncture alone. Because many of the addiction clinics that use acupuncture as part of their treatment protocol do not use herbal treatments, the continued increase in the availability of these programs seems to support the idea that acupuncture alone can be effective.
Good News from Maggie
In the four months Maggie has come in for acupuncture, she has not smoked, as her fresh new smell attests. To assist her during the treatments, Maggie also used nicotine gum off and on, but began tapering off after the first month. She told me that this time it has been easier for her to forget about smoking and that she feels calmer, more energized and has not been as tempted as she has in the past to snack to make up for the lack of tobacco.
Christopher Hobbs’ case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is the creator of the correspondence course Foundations of Herbalism; www.foundationsofherbalism.com.
“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health- care provider.