IMH using acupuncture to fight various addictions

IMH patient Annie Lim (not her real name) receiving acupuncture to help with her alcohol addiction. The pilot service is now being offered at the hospital on top of regular Western-based treatment.

The Institute of Mental Health (IMH) has become the first health-care provider here to start using acupuncture to help addicts break their drug, drink or gambling habits.

The psychiatric hospital offers an optional pilot service that can be tried on top of regular Western-based treatment that includes medication and counselling.

Patients pay $200 for 10 acupuncture sessions, each lasting about 30 minutes, twice a week.

The Straits Times understands that no major scientific studies have been published on using acupuncture for behavioural addictions but the ancient method has developed in recent years outside of China as part of a combined approach to curb such disorders.

Acupuncture can enhance the standard mode of treatment, said Associate Professor Wong Kim Eng, clinical director of IMH's National Addictions Management Service, which runs the new acupuncture clinic.

It can help to relieve withdrawal symptoms, pain and cravings, as well as anxiety, he added, noting: "So far, there is no single medication that can cure addiction, or a perfect treatment programme. As an Asian society, we sought to borrow some age-old wisdom to improve treatment for our patients."

The initiative, which is backed by the Ministry of Health, follows a sharp rise in the number of people seeking help for addiction in recent years.

The IMH recorded 1,419 outpatient cases in the 12 months to March this year, up 55 per cent from the same period three years earlier.

Alcohol addiction notched the most drastic rise during this period, up almost 75 per cent.

Recovering alcoholic "Annie Lim", who works for a construction firm, was one of the first to try the service when it began in August.

Ms Lim, 40, who declined to give her real name, started to drink heavily two years ago to cope with stress at work.

During this time, the petite woman's weight plunged from a healthy 50kg to 38.5kg.

Scaling back on drinking triggered withdrawal symptoms, she said. Her hands trembled, she lost sleep and she constantly craved alcohol.

But things have improved after five rounds of acupuncture, in which needles were placed on her forehead, ears and wrists. Ms Lim said in Mandarin: "After each session, I go home and sleep very well. My mind feels less heavy, less pessimistic, and more relaxed."

Her appetite is gradually returning too and she now weighs about 43kg.

Aside from patients referred by IMH's doctors, the acupuncture clinic will also accept referrals from polyclinics, other public hospitals and private specialist clinics. IMH psychiatrist Dr Guo Song, who is also a registered acupuncturist, heads the clinic, which is now treating seven patients.

Prof Wong said that while it is still early days yet, the responses have been mixed. However, a detailed study will be done to evaluate the treatment.

Mr Wong Chin Nai, president of the Singapore Chinese Physicians' Association, believes acupuncture can help ease addiction problems given that it has been used to help smokers quit.

Raffles Hospital said it has acupuncture services for smoking addiction, and for other mental problems including depression.

However, treating addiction disorders is uncommon in Chinese medicine as physicians tend to advise patients to consult psychiatrists, added Mr Wong.

Ms Lim has few doubts about the treatment even if it does cost more. "If I am able to relax, better to spend the money on this, rather than on shopping," she said.

chpoon@sph.com.sg

For help

Visit the National Addictions Management Service website at www.nams.sg or call the All Addictions Helpline on 6-RECOVER (6-7326837)

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