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Acupuncture and the Opioid Crisis

BY: JESS CLAYTON, M.AC., L.AC. – AUGUST 17, 2018 – ACUPUNCTURE

Pain is a symptom that I am frequently treating in my acupuncture practice. In fact, I became an acupuncturist due to my own battle with chronic pain. Western medicine is a great modality when it comes to acute pain and other symptoms where there are pharmaceuticals and established treatment options available – but when we begin to talk about chronic pain and chronic diseases, management from a Western medicine modality alone doesn’t always providing sufficient relief or answers. Over the past 20 years, pain management has become almost synonymous with opioids. And if you have been living in America over the past decade, you have heard about the opioid crisis that we have as a result.

Although opioids do manage pain, they have the potential to be abused and in chronic conditions can overtime become less effective with patients building up a tolerance or dependence. As the government is beginning to get involved as far as funding and guidelines and with the legalization of medicinal cannabis there are continued efforts for improvement towards ending the opioid addiction epidemic. This is great news for those who have experienced addiction or have loved ones that have been afflicted, but what about those that are still in legitimate pain and are having their pain medications taken from them or are running out of options?

Over 100 million Americans experience chronic pain according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Pain affects more Americans then diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Not only are these patients in chronic, recurring pain but the pain is reported to affect sleep, work, eating habits and quality of life overall. It has also been reported to lead to mental and emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression. As a chronic pain patient myself, a common concern among the community is that we are viewed as drug seekers and not being believed that we are in pain as well as judgment on our reliance on these opioid medications. With the crackdown on these medications patients are concerned that they will not have access to pain relief or pain management and even worse will not be believed by medical providers on the severity of the pain. With the changes to the medical environment and treatment centers underway, there is also a push for a deeper understanding and remedies of pain, especially chronic pain.

Pain can be a challenging symptom for both the patient and the practitioner – the only measurement of pain from a practitioners perspective is observation and pain scale of 1-10 which can be inconsistent based on a patient’s pain tolerance. When you have experienced pain for long durations of time you begin to learn how to live your life with pain, which can affect pain perception. For instance, my 3/10 on the pain scale may be your 7/10. So with the large number of Americans that experience chronic pain continuing to rise and the abuse and addiction rate of opioids becoming an increasing epidemic, what options can we begin to offer? Many in the medical community agree that acupuncture is a promising complementary therapy to both prevention and treatment for chronic pain, opioid use, abuse and addiction.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), there are a number of studies that suggest acupuncture works particularly well on chronic pain. It can reduce the duration of pain, the incidence and severity as well as be preventative of pain in some cases such as migraines. The American College of Physicians has recently recommended that acupuncture be used as an alternative treatment to drug therapy when treating pain. Physiologically, acupuncture increases the levels of neurotransmitters and hormones in the central nervous system such as epinephrine, endorphins, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. The increases in these chemicals affects and calms the central nervous system decreasing pain and stress levels as well as allowing for better sleep, calming of anxiety symptoms and decreasing symptoms of depression. As recently as last year, the FDA proposed that doctors begin to learn about acupuncture for pain management in order to cut down on the use of opioids.

In addition to acupuncture being useful for chronic pain management and decreasing the usage of opioids – it can be used as a treatment option for opioid addiction. In 1985, Dr. M. Smith the head of the U.S. National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) developed a protocol which uses 5 auricular acupuncture points as a treatment to help relieve withdrawal and craving symptoms as well as increased patient participation rates in long term treatment programs. Today, over 700 addiction centers offer acupuncture as an alternative or adjudicative therapy for addiction treatment using the NADA protocol. Acupuncture is also currently being used successfully by the Veterans Administration and various branches of the United States Military for treating chronic pain, PTSD and addiction recovery. The advantages of acupuncture include being inexpensive, having no side effects, being safe for pregnant women and being useful for prevention in opiate relapse.


5 Auricular Points – NADA Protocol

With acupuncture showing promise as a complementary therapy for pain management it can also be used to effectively help to significantly decrease or stop the use of opioids which can reduce the likelihood of abuse and addiction. In order to fully tackle the issue of pain management and the opioid crisis there needs to be a cultural shift and acknowledgement that one pill, treatment or therapy can not cure every symptom or issue, especially those chronic in nature. Chronic or recurring pain are potential lifelong battles in which many therapies need to be used in conjunction in order to manage. Whether it is acupuncture, drug therapy, physical therapy, biofeedback or surgery, typically when dealing with chronic pain it is not a one fix cure. In most cases, a healthy combination of all these therapies and more need to be used in order to manage the pain so that the patient can live their lives as fully as possible. Acupuncture is showing through studies and application to be a viable complementary option in continuing the reduction of opioids being prescribed and used, helping to decrease pain, stress, the emotional and mental factors that come with pain as well as managing the addictions and dependence that already exist. Acupuncture stands as the most evidence based choice to fulfill the needs of these issues and is widely available from qualified practitioners nationally. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, contact Oasis of Harmony Wellness at 443-286-0138 or email jess@oasisofharmonywellness.com.

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