Acupuncture for Lawyers: How an Old Method Has New Potential

Woman getting acupuncture to her back in a clinic

I used to joke that practicing law was the worst thing I’d ever done for my health, both mental and physical. Turns out, it wasn’t really a joke and I am not alone. For myself, I have found tremendous benefit from acupuncture, the centuries-old method of treating mental and physical ailments with fine needles applied to a patient’s skin.

Evidence suggests that, as a population, attorneys are more likely to experience certain health conditions than the general public. Oftentimes, these illnesses are perceived as an impairment to work output and, consequently, are hidden. Neither is it a hallmark of attorneys to show weakness or ask for help, despite the strength and bravery needed to do so. Secrets keep people sick—but also employed and in line for career-building opportunities.

In this article, I will outline some of the issues that disproportionately plague lawyers, but finish by demonstrating how acupuncture can provide relief.

Mental Illness and Attorneys

When one considers that law is chiefly a cognitive profession, it is particularly unlikely that a lawyer will acknowledge their issues with mental health in the workplace.

Yet evidence suggests that practicing law makes you more likely to experience certain mental illnesses. Lawyers are three times as likely to experience drinking problems compared to the general population: nearly one-fifth of lawyers, in contrast to 7 percent of the population nationally. Alcohol is not the only substance of concern. Exact percentages differ across different studies, but researchers consistently find that the portion of attorneys with substance-abuse problems are multitudes greater than the general population.

According to “The prevalence of depression, alcohol abuse, and cocaine abuse among United States lawyers,” approximately 28 percent of attorneys experience depressive symptoms; 19 percent of lawyers have symptoms of anxiety. Many people self-medicate for these and other conditions, potentially the start of substance-abuse. There is no shortage of further research linking the law with other mental illnesses.

Physical Ailments and Attorneys

Practicing law also involves extended sedentary periods—depositions and document review, for instance—which can cause physical ailments and pain. It’s been said that “sitting is the new smoking” because extended sedentary periods, not a lack of exercise, are linked with higher rates of chronic disease: in particular, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Moreover, there is evidence that a sedentary lifestyle can increase the likelihood of experiencing chronic pain from a physiologic standpoint.

How Acupuncture Can Help Lawyers

Acupuncture has centuries of longitudinal data and global applicability (literally, it’s used widely in places around the globe) and has shown promise in treating the physical pain, mental illness, and substance abuse that gnaw at lawyers.

It has long-term benefits for chronic pain, including neck and shoulder pain, the bane of the desk-bound. Acupuncture’s success in treating back pain has been so amply demonstrated that the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has undertaken rulemaking to authorize treating injured workers with acupuncture.

Less well-known are the benefits of acupuncture in treating substance abuse and mental illness. Acupuncture supports recovery by diminishing cravings during substance-abuse treatment. For example, a 2009 review of opioid treatment databases revealed lower levels of withdrawal symptoms and fewer reported side effects when acupuncture was combined with opioid treatment. A year earlier, the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment published similar findings about acupuncture programs in Hong Kong and New York City for acute drug withdrawal treatment.

For anxiety, acupuncture’s effectiveness has been described as comparable to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a commonly used psychotherapy treatment.

“Each paper showing statistically significant effects directly attributable to an acupuncture treatment lends weight to the use of acupuncture to significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders, using both human and animal subjects,” the author of “Acupuncture for Anxiety,” concludes. Additionally, acupuncture shows promise in the treatment of depression.

It certainly has been the most effective method to address my own personal chronic pain and mental-health concerns. Amazing as it is, acupuncture is medicine, not magic. Just like other forms of medicine, such as physical therapy or pharmaceuticals, some repetition is necessary. (It’s no accident we refer to one receiving health care as a “patient.”) As with other forms of medicine, acupuncture has different styles and sub-specialties, so you might consider investigating practitioners to help find the best fit for you.

If you’d like to learn more, one unconventional place to get an overview of acupuncture in the U.S. is with “The Try Guys” on YouTube. More traditional sources of acupuncture information include the Washington East Asian Medical Association, the National Institute of Health, and National Geographic.