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Addictions whether to cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or food, for example — remain one of medicine’s toughest challenges, because there’s no magic-bullet treatment. According to a new report published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (February 2013), though, addicts may find help with qigong, an ancient Chinese healing practice.

The study, led by David Smelson, PsyD, vice chair of clinical research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, specifically examines how qigong affects cocaine cravings.

One hundred one people, all recovering cocaine-dependent individuals, were split into two groups: One received a form of qigong by an experienced healer; the other received “sham” treatment by an actor. After two weeks of treatments, participants were shown videos and other materials that strongly stimulated their cravings. Only the group that received the legitimate treatment showed reductions in cravings, anxiety, and depression.

Qigong can take several forms. In self-directed qigong, an individual uses breathing, movement, and meditation to balance his or her energy flow. In the pilot study led by Smelson, a qigong healer manipulated the subject’s energy flow — similar to acupuncture, but without the needles.

“Our interpretation is that [the healers in our study] were reducing the blockage of energy in the amygdala and frontal lobes, or the craving areas of the brain,” says Smelson, who is cautiously optimistic about the team’s findings.

“We found an effect that’s positive. What we don’t know, for example, is how long that effect will last and, more importantly, whether the effect of reducing cravings actually results in people being sober for more time.

“Once qigong is further explored,” Smelson concludes, “it might show some promise in other addictions like alcohol dependence or opiates.”

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