BALTIMORE—Inside the Penn North recovery center one day last fall, dozens of recovering addicts propped their feet up on black folding chairs and closed their eyes. An acupuncturist stuck five small gold pins into each person’s ears.
La’Von Dobie, one of Penn North’s addiction counselors, sat down next to me. She told the acupuncturist that her right ankle was hurting, so he stuck two thin needles in her left wrist.
For 15 minutes, there was darkness and sitar music. One man appeared to give himself a silent pep talk; another held out his hand, as though ready to receive something from the sky. When the pins came out, Dobie exclaimed that her ankle felt much better.
Daily acupuncture is a mandatory part of the addiction-recovery program at Penn North, whose staff I recently spent time with as part of a larger story on racial disparities in health. It’s not the only one to employ this unconventional approach: More than 600 addiction-recovery programs in the United States use acupuncture today, according to NADA, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association.
Some people swear by acupuncture, but recovery facilities’ use of it, along with other non-proven strategies for managing addiction, has grown more controversial as America’s opioid epidemic has raged on. Medications like buprenorphine or methadone are considered the gold standard in treating opioid addiction, which still kills more than 100 people each day. The medications dramatically reduce the likelihood of death from overdose, but they are shockingly underused: Only 3 percent of addiction treatment facilities offer all three forms of addiction-recovery medication. One recent study found that only about a third of people who overdosed were placed on medication-assisted treatment within the following year.