Finding New Paths

Using Complementary Therapies to Combat Addiction

By Karrie Osborn

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2003.

Addictions come in all shapes and sizes. From the obvious struggles with drugs and alcohol, to the less recognized but often just as destructive bouts with gambling and shopping binges, addictions can hit anyone, from any walk of life.

And it’s a sad fact that addictions are becoming more prevalent in our society. An estimated 16.6 million people (age 12 or older) were classified with dependence on, or abuse of, either alcohol or illicit drugs in 2001.1 That’s a frightening 7.3 percent of the population. Of these, 3.2 million abused illicit drugs, 11 million abused alcohol and 2.4 million were considered abusers of both alcohol and illicit drugs.2

Are these numbers growing exponentially because of the world we live in today, or is there something inherently moving us toward excess and destruction? Is it a matter of today’s talk-show environment and greater confessional format in which the addict can profess their illness that pushes the numbers upward? Or is it really a combined result of heightened societal pressures, a decrease in the one-on-one support we often found from family and friends, and lifestyles built around factors of incredible stress?

Whatever the answer, we know there are people out there hurting. Some of them know their limits and have confessed their addictions; many more have yet to face the brutal realities. But there are answers, and not all of them come out of a methadone clinic or a traditional 12-step program. Natural programs to combat addictions are being devised every day — some offering proof as to their effectiveness in treating addictions, others having only anecdotal evidence of success. Still, it’s an interesting mix of new options for a growing problem.

What Can Bodywork Do?

According to Tiffany Field and the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute, massage therapy has its place in dealing with addictions, especially as it relates to nicotine. In 1999, researchers set out to discover if self-massage to the ears and hands could reduce the craving for a cigarette. The pilot study followed 10 males and 10 females from ages 18 to 45, each randomly assigned to either a self-massage or control group. Over the four-week study, the massage group clearly fared better, showing lower scores on anxiety, depression and craving intensity.

The conclusion? Researchers said the findings suggest “self-massage may be a convenient and cost-effective adjunct therapy for reducing smoking-related anxiety.” The study’s authors admit the underlying mechanism for the effects of self-massage are not clear, but there is certainly something effectively at work here.3

Brigitte Mars, author of Addiction-Free Naturally, writes that massage and bodywork “are tremendously helpful for those struggling to give up addictions.” She recommends cranialsacral therapy and Alexander Technique, in addition to Swedish massage as a means toward recovery. How can they help? Improved circulation, combined with the relaxation and re-energizing effects offered by massage, assist in fighting off the depression, low self-esteem and lethargy often intrinsic factors of addiction.

Mars also gives credence to Ayurvedic medicine for visualization exercises, journaling to express your emotions, yoga and exercise for the physical body, homeopathy to help the mind say “no” to the cravings, acupuncture and acupressure to invigorate the body’s own healing processes and flower essences to bring the addict’s unresolved emotions and issues to the surface.

According to experts at, “Anyone who is trying to come off drugs will benefit from a regular massage.” With all the self-imposed shame and guilt addicts often suffer, massage shows them they are worthy of self-care and attention. “For once, they realize there are other ways of feeling good apart from taking drugs. By relaxing and experiencing a new form of pleasure, drug addicts are able to remember their pre-drug days, and regain respect for their bodies. The mother of one addict said having a massage was the turning point in her daughter’s recovery.”4

For heroin addicts, massage helps them relax after they’ve given up the drug. One ex-addict said “I felt terrible when I was withdrawing and didn’t think anything apart from heroin would help. I was delighted to find after having a full body massage I felt totally at ease. The shivering stopped, and I felt warmer. My muscles stopped cramping, and my nerves weren’t jumping around so much. I also felt much less depressed and, for a few minutes, the world didn’t seem so awful.”5

There’s no doubt massage and bodywork can help people through the grip of addiction — just look what it does for already healthy people. The power of therapeutic touch can help feed a hungry soul.