Sojourner Recovery Services Spotlight

Ear acupuncture program helps clients adjust to and stay in drug treatment


One of the hardest parts of treating people with substance use disorders is keeping them in treatment. Withdrawal symptoms, anxiety and continued drug cravings can cause patients to abandon treatment after only a few weeks. Ending treatment early reduces the chance that a client will have a successful recovery.

“The first and second weeks of treatment are particularly difficult for clients who are used to numbing their mental health issues with substances," said Art Lantman, executive vice president at Sojourner Recovery Services, a provider of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs in Hamilton, Ohio. “Many have trouble sleeping during the night and adjusting to community living.

“The anxiety and cravings don’t go away after the first two weeks," Lantman said. “Substantial numbers of clients are not able to manage their anxieties and they leave the program." Sojourner found that about half its clients did not complete treatment. Seeking a way to retain more clients, Sojourner decided to add a nontraditional practice to its residential program: ear acupuncture.

Why ear acupuncture?

In 2009 Sojourner investigated alternative health practices that could help keep more clients in treatment, including the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) protocol, Lantman said. The NADA protocol was developed in 1974 by Dr. Michael Smith at Lincoln Medical Center in New York City as a natural alternative to using methadone to treat substance abuse.

“The evidence from his work showed that … calm and receptive behavior could be obtained with the NADA protocol," Lantman said. “We felt that with the reduction in anxiety and agitation during treatment we could increase our clients’ ability to successfully complete treatment."

With a three-year $136,300 grant from Interact for Health, formerly The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Sojourner set up an ear acupuncture program at three of its residential treatment facilities.

How the program works

Acupuncture is just one part of a coordinated treatment program at Sojourner. Residents are provided with structured programming between 8:15 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day, Lantman said. Programming includes individual counseling, group therapy, lectures and discussion groups. Acupuncture is conducted in the morning for those who choose to participate.

In ear acupuncture, trained clinicians apply stainless steel needles just under the skin at five specific points on the outer ear, according to the NADA protocol. Each point is associated with a different calming action, such as relieving fear and depression, alleviating tension and improving self respect.

The needles remain in place for about 30 minutes while up to 15 clients sit in comfortable chairs in a familiar room.

“During the assessments and needle placement calming popular music is played to enhance a comfortable community feeling among participants," said Donna Lynne Strong Brott, Sojourner’s current accupuncturist. “Once everyone is settled, the lights are dimmed and the music becomes more inwardly focused, any lyrics strongly affirmative and supportive of the recovery process."

Songs popular with clients during the session include R.Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly" and Sarah McLaughlan’s “Angel," Brott said. Clients can meditate or just relax.

Clients felt better, stayed in treatment

Sojourner’s investment in the program paid off. Almost three-quarters of clients who received acupuncture (72%) reported fewer drug cravings in the critical first week of treatment.

“(Acupuncture) was really beneficial to me," said one client, “especially the second day I was here because I was withdrawing really bad and I came downstairs and did the acupuncture and it did make me relax."

And those reductions in cravings were maintained: 83% of clients experienced fewer cravings at the time they left treatment. Among the clients Sojourner was able to contact, the number abstaining from drug use 90 days after leaving the program increased 5 percent.

In addition, acupuncture clients were more likely to report reduced anxiety than clients who did not get acupuncture. About 7 in 10 acupuncture clients reported reduced anxiety in each year of the grant, compared with about 5 in 10 clients who did not get acupuncture.

“At first I was hesitant about getting pins put in my ears," one client said, “but once I tried it, it was awesome. If I was having anxiety about anything that day, after acupuncture I was calmed down a lot."

With the decline in drug cravings and anxiety, Sojourner achieved its goal of keeping more clients in treatment. Over the course of the grant, program completion improved 15 percent.

Keys to success: staff, client buy-in

Lantman said factors that ensured the success of the program included a caring acupuncturist, strong client support from staff members and the “clients themselves, who informed new clients as they came into treatment and expressed how acupuncture was assisting them."

Though Interact’s funding has ended, Sojourner continues to offer acupuncture as part of its rehabilitation program.

“I feel that this program should become a permanent part of drug and alcohol treatment here at Sojourner," a client said.

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