Should You Try to Quit Smoking with Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese technique that is traditionally used to treat pain and disease. Some practitioners also try to help people quit smoking with acupuncture.
Acupuncture treatment involves using needles to stimulate specific places in the body, which is supposed to release blocked energy to correct energy 'imbalances' which are said to cause disease or pain. The primary way that acupuncture is supposed to help people quit smoking is by reducing withdrawal symptoms, thereby making it easier to quit successfully.
While there is some evidence that acupuncture can be effective for certain types of pain relief ― perhaps including withdrawal symptoms ― there is no good evidence that it is effective improving your chances of quitting smoking successfully. A meta-analysis looking at the evidence from 24 scientifically sound studies comparing acupuncture to a control group (that is, a group that got what they thought was acupuncture) showed that people didn't quit smoking with acupuncture any more successfully than people who got 'sham' acupuncture. Only one study in the entire group showed a positive effect.
This is pretty strong evidence that acupuncture does not increase your chance of quitting successfully.
Citation: White AR, Rampes H, Campbell JL. Acupuncture and related interventions for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD000009.
If you've ever done research on anything at all, you already know that you often find conflicting information. It doesn't matter if you're reading reviews on Amazon to see whether people like a particular model of HDTV, or examining the scientific evidence to find out whether a smoking cessation technique is effective. One person or study will say 'yes,' another will say 'no.' If you're smart, you look at all the information, filter out the bits that may not be very reliable, and then try to make sense of the rest.
This is essentially what meta-analysis does: It is a research technique that is designed to examine only the highest quality studies about a particular topic, combine the findings in a way that makes sense, and draw a conclusion on the basis of the best evidence available.
Meta-analysis is a very strong research tool for getting at the truth when the topic of the research is well-defined and has consistent effects. For instance, meta-analytic conclusions about drug therapies and medical procedures are very reliable.
However, using meta-analysis to explore and combine research findings on techniques that are more highly variable and/or not particularly well-defined can oftentimes lead to a 'non'-conclusion. In other words, a meta-analysis may fail to find an effect even if some versions of the technique or therapy are effective, because the act of combining non-similar studies muddles the overall outcome.
Meta-Analysis and Acupuncture
Meta-analysis of acupuncture to quit smoking show no evidence of effectiveness overall. However, there was one study of the 24 that showed a significant positive effect. What does this mean?
It could mean that the specific practitioner/technique was effective, whereas all the others were not. Or it could simply be due to chance. (The more studies done, the greater the odds of results that are actually due to random variation.)
However, even if the one successful study was a result of finding a good practitioner, the fact that only one out of the 24 studies showed any effectiveness of acupuncture for smoking cessation is a sign that finding a good practitioner is likely to be difficult.
Ultimately, any method that does not show a strong meta-analytic finding of effectiveness is going to be a bit of a crap-shoot: either the method is truly not very effective, or it is highly dependent on getting lucky and finding the right practitioner. In either case, unless you have some strong reason to use that method, I recommend going for an approach with better evidence supporting it.
Mechanism of Action
Acupuncture was used in Honk Kong years ago to help people quit smoking opium, and seemed to help with the pain and withdrawal symptoms associated with that. In that usage, acupuncture DID help people quit smoking opium. Based on that, it was believed that it might also help people quit smoking cigarettes. For the past 30 years or so, practitioners in the US have tried to help people quit smoking with acupuncture.
Unfortunately, although its possible that acupuncture may help reduce withdrawal symptoms, it is clear that overall, it doesn't actually improve your chances of successfully quitting.
The good news is, if you decide to try acupuncture anyway, there don't appear to be any serious side effects. (Be sure that you go to a professional practitioner who follows common sense hygienic practices, of course, because use of dirty needles can cause serious infections such as hepatitis C.) Other possible side effects are both minor and very rare, such as light bruising or bleeding from the needles.
Pros and Cons
What are the pros and cons of using acupuncture to help quit smoking?
There simply isn't good evidence that acupuncture is an effective way to quit smoking, so I recommend sticking with other techniques that have better evidence behind them. That said, if you're dead set on trying to quit smoking with acupuncture, I'd recommend looking for a acupuncturist that has a number of patients who attest to their success with that specific practitioner. And I'd also recommend combining it with other techniques such as a good behavioral strategy for eliminating the psychological dependence on smoking, too.
It is very clear that although acupuncture can be effective for some things, it is not a particularly good bet for quitting smoking.. If it happens to help reduce withdrawal symptoms within the context of an overall plan for quitting, maybe it will be worth the money.