Acupuncture vs Opioids

October 24, 2017

A few weeks ago I wrote our local paper to express my thoughts concerning acupuncture for relief versus pain medication. While it will be available online for a bit, eventually it will not be so I am sharing it here with you. More thoughts and developments to come I'm sure!

- Karen

Today I saw another in a long line of articles decrying the response to the national opioid crisis. This one shines a light on the role and responsibility insurance companies play and have played in this crisis, and as I read it, I could feel my blood pressure go through the roof.

The NY Times/Pro Publica collaboration reports that insurance companies are not allowing less addictive medications for patients because those are more expensive than addictive drugs like morphine. I’ll set aside the question of when — and why — insurance companies became a major player in our health care decisions (way, way outside their scope of practice), and just speak to the madness of looking for solutions from those who created the problem.

I am an acupuncturist. I treat patients dealing with chronic pain all the time. Many come to acupuncture because the medications are failing them. If they take enough to dull the pain, they find it hard to get out of bed. If they take less, the pain is still there — a constant limitation to living a full life. In other words, the pain affects their quality of life, and the meds affect their quality of life. One of the great tragedies is that, had modalities like acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga, swimming been prescribed first or concurrent to medications, it is quite likely many of these folks would be in better shape than they are.

I know that doctors are struggling to care for their patients. They have less time to spend with individuals (insurance companies again). Their training gives them the filter of medications as the only solution, and I know they feel frustrated and anguished when what they offer doesn’t help. I can only imagine the difficulty in keeping up with research — on new treatments for back pain, on new meds, on old meds, on what to prescribe or not prescribe.

But my holy sainted mother. To accept the newest creation of a ‘safe’ painkiller from the institutions that created the first ‘safe-now-unsafe’ medication is crazy. To be forced to do that because it is cheaper by other institutions that know nothing of medicine is lunacy squared.

There is ample evidence that modalities like acupuncture can be more effective and safer than prescription medicines. In the cases of extreme, chronic pain where medications are necessary, acupuncture complements that treatment very well. This, too, is shown in the research.

In the past two years, I’ve spoken about the evidence that acupuncture works to grand rounds at the hospital, and three times to the Opioid Task Force. I presented evidence that not only does acupuncture alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal and subsequent cravings from trying to not use addictive substances, but it is extremely effective in pain management and recovery.

I’ve brought proposals to the state Department of Health, two local agencies who are seeing people who are addicted, and to the jail. I suggested they set up a community style acupuncture program that’s available six or seven days a week for their clients. The cost of such a program is minimal. They need a good size, welcoming room, comfortable chairs and an acupuncturist. The cost is doable. I wasn’t brushed off; in fact, many I talked to were interested. But the proposals sank like a rock. I suspect part of the reason I’ve gotten nowhere is that acupuncture isn’t covered by insurance. To which I say: so? Find another way — and in the process, stop insurance companies from practicing medicine without a license.

I don’t even know how to end this piece. Perhaps I can just say we can make other modalities available from the bottom up. It shouldn’t be the job of people who are ill to insist on broader care, but if enough of us demand change, it will happen. We know this, we’ve done it before. I’d just love to see it happen before more people suffer, before more first responders have to bring people back to life multiple times, before more families have to watch their loved ones die.