Healing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder With Acupuncture

One of my major motivations for enrolling in Traditional Chinese Medicine school, back in 2006, was my desire to learn an effective tool for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a young adult, I knew many activists and humanitarian volunteers, and over and over again I saw friends come home from war zones and other intense situations with depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and other devastating symptoms caused by psychological trauma. I experienced it myself as well, gaining first-hand experience of just how difficult it is to heal from PTSD.

A couple of years later, I found out that acupuncture can be incredibly effective for treating the symptoms of PTSD and easing the healing process. My first thought was, “Why wasn’t that available for me?”, closely followed by, “I have to learn how to do this so I can give other people the help they need.”

The NADA protocol - 5 tiny needles in each year - is now widely used for both addictions and PTSD.

The NADA protocol – 5 tiny needles or press tacks in each year – is now widely used for both addictions and PTSD.

Acupuncture for PTSD: the Clinical Evidence

Fast forward a decade, and now even the US army uses acupuncture for soldiers with PTSD, and many community clinics offer auricular acupuncture (a simple ear acupuncture protocol) for both addictions and PTSD. A recent article in the Journal of Trauma Stress identified acupuncture as one of only a few emerging techniques that have had their effectiveness confirmed by clinical trials, although larger scale trials are still needed [1]. Another study found that acupuncture not only helped relieve PTSD symptoms, but also significantly helped their other symptoms, such as pain and depression [2]. However, despite the emerging evidence, many people suffering from PTSD aren’t aware that there’s a safe, effective method for helping them to recover.

Acupuncture’s Healing Effect on the Nervous System

So, how does acupuncture help someone who’s experiencing symptoms after a trauma? While PTSD as a diagnosis is fairly recent, acupuncturists have been treating mental and emotional symptoms for generations. One of the major benefits of acupuncture for those with PTSD is that it switches the nervous system out of the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) and into the resting mode (parasympathetic nervous system). A person with acute PTSD, suffering from flashbacks of the traumatic event, is constantly being triggered into fight or flight mode. Acupuncture helps to give them some relief from this constant onslaught of stress hormones, so they can rest and begin to heal.

A closely related benefit is acupuncture’s ability as a sleep aid. Many people report sleeping more deeply after an acupuncture treatment, even if they don’t have insomnia, and for those with chronic trouble sleeping, regular treatments can make all the difference. Disrupted sleep patterns is a hallmark sign of PTSD, and acupuncture can help with many of the symptoms that contribute to it: anxiety, trouble falling asleep, nightmares and night-terrors, and lethargy in the mornings. Often, helping someone to get a good night’s sleep is key to their recovery.

Rebalancing the Emotions to Aid Recovery

One of the most distressing symptoms for many PTSD sufferers is the intensity of the emotions they feel. Fear, shame, anger, and sadness can all reach overwhelming levels as they struggle to come to terms with what happened to them. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a discipline that is primarily concerned with restoring balance to the human mind and body, and it uses many techniques for bringing these extreme emotions back into balance.

Intense emotions can be very difficult to think your way out of – once those stress hormones and other neurochemicals have flooded your body, telling yourself to calm down can be futile. That’s why it helps to have a body-based approach in your toolkit, as it can change things at a physiological level. Often, people experience a gentle emotional release during an acupuncture treatment that leaves them feeling clearer and lighter than before. And almost always, people leave a treatment feeling calmer and more centred than they were before.

One of my favourite parts of my job is watching someone who walked in the door in a state of anxiety, stress, anger, or fear relax and regain equilibrium during the treatment. I can often see the tension seep out of their muscles as their mind settles down, and I love hearing the deep sighs of relief as they’re able to relax, possibly for the first time in weeks.

Acupuncture’s Role in PTSD Treatment

In my experience, acupuncture is most effective for helping to calm the emotional and psychological symptoms of PTSD so that the survivor is better able to cope through the most acute phase, and to remain calm enough to address the issue during therapy sessions. I see it as a pressure-release valve, which can give someone enough breathing room to face the trauma in whatever way they need to. I always recommend that those suffering from PTSD combine acupuncture with some kind of talk therapy as this seems to get the best results.

Acupuncture alone may not be able to fully heal the trauma, but it can usually reduce the severity of the symptoms enough that the healing process feels manageable, and can help someone regain emotional stability. It also eases symptoms such as insomnia, panic attacks, nightmares, and physical pain if there was a physical injury during the traumatic event. Healing from PTSD is rarely easy, but full recovery is definitely possible, and regular acupuncture can help immensely with the healing process.

I feel particularly passionate about this issue. I hope that one day acupuncture will be a standard treatment for PTSD, but until then, if you know someone who is suffering after a traumatic event, please share this information with them, so they know that help is out there.

Your health ally,

Moss

 

  1. Metcalf, O., et al., Efficacy of Fifteen Emerging Interventions for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review. J Trauma Stress, 2016. 29(1): p. 88-92.
  2. Engel, C.C., et al., Randomized effectiveness trial of a brief course of acupuncture for posttraumatic stress disorder. Med Care, 2014. 52(12 Suppl 5): p. S57-64.
Moss
Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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