Oshawa Addiction Clinic Tackles Opioid Crisis With Acupuncture Treatment


Cindy Brown Primeau, left, an acupuncture specialist at Lakeridge Health and Pinewood Center in Oshawa, removes needles from Chris Cull who is using acupuncture as part of his recovery from opioid addiction.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

A dozen men and women sit in chairs arranged around the walls of a dimly lit room, short orange acupuncture needles sticking out of their ears. Soothing music plays over the audio system. A screen shows a video of jellyfish floating in rhythm in the middle of the blue waters.

This could be a scene from any acupuncture studio or wellness clinic, but this room is at the Pinewood Center, a modern health facility that specializes in treating people with addictions. As Canada’s deadly opioid crisis continues unabated, authorities are trying every tool in their kit to help addicts survive and recover, from substitution drugs and cognitive therapy to supervised consumption sites and prescribed heroin. Here in Oshawa, Ontario, a city of 166,000 on the eastern edge of the Greater Toronto Area, acupuncture is one of the most popular.

Lakeridge, the regional health network, gave nearly 6,000 acupuncture treatments last year, triple the number in 2009 when it began offering the therapy. This year, he is on course to give even more. The number of acudetox specialists on staff – those who have undergone training in acupuncture detox – has grown from two at the start, to 12, then to 27 and now to 42. Pinewood hosts free sessions every weekday morning in its large brick headquarters, a former children’s shelter in downtown Oshawa that contains residential weaning rooms for men and women. No less than 30 people show up.

Whether acudetox actually works is disputed, but health officials say anything that helps users find peace and take care of themselves can’t hurt. “It’s empowering because they allow their bodies to heal,” said clinical coordinator Cindy Brown Primeau.

Acupuncture originated from the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. Yin is the dark and passive principle; yang the active, light. Acupuncture aims to treat the imbalance between the two that is believed to cause illness and physical distress. Needles are inserted into designated points on the body to allow vital forces to flow freely.

Acudetox uses auricular acupuncture, which stimulates points on the ear. Thin disposable needles are inserted in five specific places. According to a sheet distributed by Pinewood, the Sympathetic stitch “calms the mind” while the Shen Men, or Heaven’s Gate, stitch “promotes the ability to love oneself and others”.

Acupuncture visitors to Pinewood typically stay 30-40 minutes. When they want to leave, a woman in surgical gloves carefully removes the needles. If they wish, she glues a seed of the vaccaria plant to the back of the ear with a small adhesive strip. They can massage the seed to stimulate the Shen Men point after they leave.

If all of this sounds terribly new to a science-based medical system, that doesn’t bother those who come to Pinewood for acudetox. “It relaxes me, it centers me,” said Chris Cull, 34. He started using painkillers after his father died by suicide. He managed to recover from his addiction and even cycled 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 doesn’t care about anything”.

Ms. Brown Primeau demonstrates how she trains staff to treat opioid addiction through acupuncture.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

Many medical experts are skeptical of acudetox. “The scientific evidence for acupuncture to treat drug addiction is weak,” says Stephen Hwang of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He cites a 2006 study on cocaine by researchers from three UK universities and published in the Cochrane database of medical research. He found that: “There is currently no evidence that auricular acupuncture is effective for the treatment of cocaine addiction.” But while offering acupuncture can inspire addicts to seek treatment and help restore hope, Dr. Hwang says, “These are all good things.

That’s how the staff at the Pinewood Center see it. Ms. Brown Primeau says acudetox gets many addicts through the door because it’s easy and voluntary. Visitors don’t have to sign up for regular classes or fill out a bunch of forms. It’s appealing to those wary of healthcare bureaucracy or who have trouble getting to appointments.

Visitors who find it difficult to sit still often find the sessions calming. Ms. Brown Primeau says a troubled man with a personality disorder and an addiction to tranquilizers started coming to acudetox. Now he can go through group chat sessions. In a questionnaire, many clients said that acupuncture helped them relieve 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 difficult to adopt or simply ineffective. Those who enter abstinence-based withdrawal programs, for example, frequently relapse and resume using after they leave. Ms Chapman is the sister of homeless man Brad Chapman, who died of a drug overdose on the streets of Toronto in 2015. She herself goes to acupuncture for her anxiety and grief. Among visitors to a local supervised consumption clinic, she says, “it’s really popular.”

But physician and researcher David Juurlink of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center says that instead of turning to alternative treatments such as acupuncture, health officials should make it easier for addicts to access alternative medications such as methadone or buprenorphine, which have been shown to help reduce cravings.

In Lakeridge, officials are indeed making great efforts to bring users to these drug treatments, creating two special clinics for this purpose. They say acupuncture is just one of the ways they cope with the crisis and, for those who come to the sessions, it seems to be helping.


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