Acupuncture for Self-Injury | Psychology Today Canada


Source: Katherine Hanlon / unsplash

In my body-centered psychotherapy practice, I often refer clients to acupuncture and moxibustion when there is self-injurious behavior such as cutting or burning. There is research on the effectiveness of substituting acupuncture for self-inflicted injuries such as cuts and burns. One study showed that acupuncture reduced self-injurious behavior (self-harm) but not depression in adolescents (Nixon, Cheng & Cloutier, 2003). Interestingly, researchers identified self-injurious behaviors in non-human primates that targeted known acupuncture analgesia points (Tiefenbacher, Novak, Lutz & Meyer, 2005). Nixon, Cheng and Cloutier (2003) suggest teaching auto-acupuncture as an alternative to auto-acupuncture.

Combining these therapies with counseling links combines listening to oneself, the voice of the body, and being heard by others with self-care activities and can be very effective. Machoian has worked extensively with adolescent SIB girls focusing on the relational basis of self-harm: the cry to “not be heard” (2006). The substitution effect of piercing the skin or applying heat may be a positive surrogate when exploring the altered condition and how it relates to the significance of the trauma. During these sessions, the patient learns new behaviors and is better able to manage and develop new approaches to physical relaxation.

Acupuncture is a 5,000-year-old Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) healing approach. It works by stimulating specific points in the body to interact with the body’s energy called qi. In the biomedical world, acupuncture has found a niche by working with conventional medicine in the field of pain management and has proven to be very effective. Auricular acupuncture is a more recent innovation and applies small needles, magnets and even “seeds” to the ears. It is a powerful physiological intervention that induces deep relaxation and reduces cravings and addiction withdrawal symptoms. Anatomically, the vagal nerve approaches the surface in the atrium (which also explains the application of the placement of cranial electrical stimulation (CES) electrodes on the earlobe).

Acupuncture, both auricular and bodily, is effective for dissociation conditions, substance abuse, pain, self-harm, and addictions in general. A study by Hollifield, Sinclair-Lian, Warner and Hammershlag (2007) found that acupuncture was beneficial in the treatment of PTSD. Acupuncture (and moxibustion) stimulates opioid / endocannabinoid mediated analgesia (McPartland, 2010), probably through the same process as burns and cuts associated with self-injury (Villalba & Harrington, 2003).

Katherine Hanlon / Unsplash

Source: katherine Hanlon / Unsplash

Moxibustion, trauma and self-harm

Moxibustion, which is often used in conjunction with acupuncture, involves burning the herb Artemis vulgaris directly on or just above acupuncture points on the body to create intense heat. In my clinical experience with self-injurious patients, the application of acupuncture and moxibustion as well as deep massage and pressure point therapy allows for a therapeutic transition from self-injurious behavior via soma to self-help therapy. These therapies address psychobiological dependence by allowing a titled period of therapeutic withdrawal from self-harm activities by replacing the activity with a similar method, however outside the self-harm spectrum.

Behaviorally, it is helpful for the client to understand why they are behaving in this way; identifying the need to achieve a state of consciousness as a physical need reduces shame and guilt associated with self-injurious behaviors and also increases adherence to an alternative modes of self-regulation program.

Auricular acupuncture is also effective for nicotine withdrawal. Nicotine blocks the HPA axis response and when they quit smoking, people with PTSD experience an increase in PTSD-like symptoms, including depression. The triple warmer meridian in Chinese medicine, which is often at the center of the needle insertion, crosses the western anatomical region of the hypothalamus in the brain. The Triple Warmer regulates the endocrine and autonomic systems as well as addictions and is associated with family relationships.

    Dr Leslie Korn / Recovery Rhythms

Source: Dr Leslie Korn / Recovery Rhythms

For more on how to deal with self-injury and trauma, check out my book Rhythms of Recovery: Trauma, Nature, and the Body.


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