A dozen men and women sit in chairs arranged around the walls of a dimly lit room, short, orange-coloured acupuncture needles protruding from their ears. Soothing music plays on the sound system. A screen shows a video of jellyfish floating rhythmically amid blue waters.
It could be a scene from any acupuncture studio or wellness clinic, but this room happens to be in the Pinewood Centre, a modern health facility that specializes in treating people with addictions. With Canada’s deadly opioids crisis continuing unabated, authorities are trying every tool in their kit to help drug users survive and recover, from substitute drugs and cognitive therapy to supervised-consumption sites and prescribed heroin. Here in Oshawa, Ont., a city of 166,000 on the eastern edge of the Greater Toronto Area, one of the most popular is acupuncture.
Lakeridge, the regional health network, gave nearly 6,000 acupuncture treatments last year, triple the number in 2009, when it started offering the therapy. This year, it is on pace to give even more. The number of acudetox specialists on staff – those with training in acupuncture detoxification – has grown from two at first, to 12, then to 27 and now to 42. Pinewood runs free drop-in sessions every weekday morning in its big brick headquarters, a former children’s shelter in downtown Oshawa that contains live-in withdrawal wards for men and women. As many as 30 people show up.
Whether acudetox actually works is disputed, but health officials say that anything that helps users to find peace and take care of themselves can’t hurt. “It’s empowering, because they are allowing their body to heal,” clinical co-ordinator Cindy Brown Primeau said.
Acupuncture springs from the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. Yin is the dark, passive principle; yang the active, light one. Acupuncture aims to treat the imbalance between the two that is said to cause illness and physical distress. Needles are inserted into designated points on the body to allow life forces to flow freely.
Acudetox uses auricular acupuncture, which stimulates points on the ear. Thin, disposable needles are inserted into five specific spots. According to a sheet that Pinewood gives out, the Sympathetic point “calms the spirit” while the Shen Men point, or Gate of Heaven, “promotes an ability to love self and others.”
Visitors to acupuncture at Pinewood usually stay for 30 to 40 minutes. When they want to leave, a woman in surgical gloves gently removes the needles. If they wish, she sticks a seed of the vaccaria plant to the back of the ear with a tiny adhesive strip. They can massage the seed to stimulate the Shen Men point after they go.
If all of this sounds awfully new age for a science-based medical system, it doesn’t bother those who come to Pinewood for acudetox. “It relaxes me, it centres me,” said Chris Cull, 34. He started using painkillers after his father died by suicide. He managed to recover from his addiction and even rode his bicycle across Canada to raise awareness about prescription-drug abuse, but still suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression. The needle treatment “keeps me here and now and not worrying about anything.”
Many medical experts are skeptical about acudetox. “The scientific evidence for acupuncture to treat addiction is weak,” says Stephen Hwang of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He points to a 2006 study on cocaine carried out by researchers from three British universities and published in the Cochrane database of medical research. It found that: “There is currently no evidence that auricular acupuncture is effective for the treatment of cocaine dependence.” But if offering acupuncture can draw drug users into treatment and help them build hope, Dr. Hwang says, “These are all good things.”
That is how the staff at the Pinewood Centre see it. Ms. Brown Primeau says acudetox brings many drug users through the door because it is easy and voluntary. Visitors don’t have to sign up for regular classes or fill out a bunch of forms. That’s appealing to those who are wary of the health bureaucracy or struggle to get to appointments.
Visitors who have trouble sitting still often find the sessions calming. Ms. Brown Primeau says that one troubled man with a personality disorder and a dependence on tranquilizers started coming to acudetox. Now he can make it through group talk sessions. In a questionnaire, many clients said the acupuncture helped them shed stress, control drug cravings and feel more motivated.
Toronto nurse and activist Leigh Chapman says users may turn to acupuncture because other forms of treatment are hard to get into or are simply ineffective. Those who enter abstinence-based withdrawal programs, for example, frequently relapse and start using again after they leave. Ms. Chapman is the sister of a homeless man, Brad Chapman, who died of a drug overdose on the streets of Toronto in 2015. She goes to acupuncture herself for anxiety and grief. Among visitors to a local supervised-consumptionclinic, she says, “it’s really, really popular.”
But doctor and researcher David Juurlink of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre says that instead of turning to alternative treatments such as acupuncture, health officials should be making it easier for drug users to get on substitute drugs such as methadone or buprenorphine that are proven to help reduce cravings.
At Lakeridge, officials are in fact pushing hard to get users on these drug treatments, setting up two special clinics for the purpose. They say that acupuncture is just one of the ways they are confronting the crisis and, for those who come to the sessions, it seems to help.