New Alternative for Pain to Replace Opioids Found in Ancient Art of Acupuncture

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November 8, 2018

New Alternative for Pain to Replace Opioids Found in Ancient Art of Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been shown to have many benefits for treating a number of ailments. Pain is the most recent chronic ailment to land on the list. Gordon Liu, a 28-year-old office worker in Hong Kong, has been relying on acupuncture to treat his shoulder and neck pain. Liu’s acupuncture treatments involve having needles stuck into his shoulders, neck, and hands. Doing this he says gives him more mobility in these regions. Before coming in for his treatment, he felt very stiff but now, he says the pain has gone.

Acupuncture has been practiced by the Chinese since ancient times. In Hong Kong alone, there are over 9,000 licensed medical practitioners, most of whom practice acupuncture. Asians like Liu highly regard it as a way to treat pain. It’s generally covered by insurance.

An anesthesiologist at Queen Mary Hospital named Chi-wai Cheung recommends acupuncture to about 10% of the patients he meets that are in pain. The reason behind his recommendations is due to some patients being unable to tolerate pain meds or other pain procedures. Western medicine is very prevalent here, however these strong medications come with intensive side effects. This is why acupuncture is an ideal solution, especially for the elderly. Opioids in particular are hard for them to handle, which cause them dizziness and sleepiness during their waking hours.

From the Data
Very few US health insurers cover acupuncture, but that’s because it isn’t called a medical option for pain treatment in healthcare. It is staunchly opposed by critics who claim it’s not conclusive despite the many clinical trials showing otherwise. These critics haven’t stopped it though. Acupuncture is becoming more prevalent in the US market for handling pain-related problems. Because opioid deaths are on the rise and the cost of prescriptions from pharmaceutical companies are so extreme, many are seeking out acupuncture for relief.

At the Veterans Health Administration, it prescribes opiates for pain relief. Prescriptions of opioids rose by 270% since the start of the 2000s, according to an investigation in 2013 by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Ever since the 1990s, the VA in Philadelphia has been trying to counter it by offering acupuncture to treat pain.

Health Services by the VA
Reno Reali was stationed in Iraq. In 2005, he was injured. Now 38, he visits the VA medical center located in Philadelphia every two weeks to receive acupuncture treatments for relief of pain in his neck and back. His spine had been so badly damaged during the time of his service that he was much like an old man. With many surgeries that left him wheelchair-bound and in excruciating pain, Reali was first prescribed strong opioids including fentanyl. He didn’t want to live in the perpetual fog he was in though and opted to try acupuncture.

Iliana Robinson, a gynecologist at the University of Pennsylvania, spends time at the VA to perform acupuncture on veterans. Reali is one of her patients. She says she’s seen the demand for acupuncture rise because the veterans want to stop taking opioids. She feels acupuncture should be tried first because it has minimal to no side effects.

As the death toll from opioids continues to rise, the heat is on for health officials to reduce prescriptions. Some states have limited the prescriptions for these painkillers which is a good step, but many go beyond by have acupuncture treatments covered via Medicaid.

Acupuncture and Medicaid
Ohio’s Medicaid program covers acupuncture. Barbara Sears, the director of this branch, explained that Ohio had one of the highest overdose death rates in the country and decided to do something about it because treating the pain without opioids was worth discovering a solution for.

California, Oregon, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts all offer acupuncture covered by Medicaid. Washington State and Delaware will soon follow. Vermont is interestingly one of the places with the highest death toll from opioids, however it wants more scientific proof before jumping on board.

Reali says after being out of the military for 8 years now, earning his bachelor’s degree would be impossible without acupuncture treatments. If other states need more scientific proof, they really should follow acupuncture patients like Reali around and see the difference it makes.

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