New study suggests that acupuncture and related techniques may not be effective for smoking cessation. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese therapy that uses needles to stimulate particular points in the body. It is used to reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms that people experience when they try to quit smoking. Acupuncture works on the concept that the life energy, also known as Qi or Chi, travels in the body along special pathways called meridians. Health problems including addictions occur when this energy flow is disrupted or blocked. Acupuncture helps break these blockages.
Various techniques using sterile needle or electrostimulation have been used for treating dependence on various addictive substances. These treatments are supposed to reduce withdrawal symptoms and thus aid in cessation.
A number of variants exist in acupuncture. In electroacupuncture, needles are stimulated electrically whereas in the traditional one needles are stimulated manually. Sometimes electrical stimulation is done using electrodes instead of needles. This is known as neuroelectrical therapy or transcranial electrotherapy. Other alternatives include acupressure (using pressure alone) and laser acupuncture (using low level laser).
Earlier studies had suggested that acupuncture might reduce the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Treatments involved inserting needles in the outer ear or sometimes in other parts of the body for 15 to 20 minutes and repeated number of times over the days. Reports of high rates of initial success also existed. Further meta-analysis of 13 studies by White and colleagues from Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, UK, revealed that although auricular acupuncture appeared to be effective for smoking cessation, the effect did not depend on point location chosen.
A recent attempt evaluated the short- and long-term effects of acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy and electrostimulation for smoking cessation. Randomized trials comparing acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation, sham treatment or another intervention for smoking cessation were selected for the review and meta-analysis. [A sham treatment means using needles at other places in the body not thought to be useful.] Tobacco smokers of any age who wished to stop smoking participated in the trials. 24 reports of studies were identified. The results were published in Cochrane Review. Authors did not find consistent evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation.
Again, active acupuncture or related techniques did not increase the number of people who could successfully quit smoking. The authors further found that acupuncture could likely be less effective than evidence based interventions such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).
But the researchers did not find sufficient evidence to definitely rule out the effects of acupuncture and allied techniques on smoking cessation. Since these interventions stimulate peripheral nerves to generate relevant effects in the central nervous system, it is generally agreed upon that 'any effect of acupuncture is likely to be via release of relevant neurotransmitters'. Studies have suggested that acupuncture may modulate dopamine release via the GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) mechanism.
'However, acupuncture may be better than doing nothing, at least in the short term', say the reviewers. It is not wise to rule out the possibility that acupuncture might have an effect greater than placebo. Future studies may be justified. Whether acupuncture that is repeated frequently or given by some method of continuous stimulation is superior to sham treatment needs to be investigated.
It is relevant to continue research into acupuncture to quit smoking since acupuncture is a safe and popular therapy. Reference: White AR, Rampes H, Campbell J. Acupuncture and related interventions for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 1
White A, Moody R. The effects of auricular acupuncture on smoking cessation may not depend on the point chosen--an exploratory meta-analysis. Acupunct Med. 2006 Dec;24(4):149-56.