The numbers ...
On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
This statistic is staggering.
In fact, opioid overdoses killed more people in 2016 than guns or car accidents, and are doing so at a pace faster than the HIV epidemic at its peak.
These days, it is more and more likely that each of us knows someone who is struggling with or has struggled with opioid addiction. Opioids are dangerous medications, and for those with a predisposition to addiction, they can be deadly. And, as many of us know, deaths due to prescription medication overdoses have leveled off while those from heroin and other synthetic opioids have dramatically increased. Consider this graphic:
This graph, taken from the Centers for Disease Control, shows that the rise in heroin overdose deaths increased in 2010 but leveled out in 2017 as synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have taken over as the leading cause of opioid deaths.
We are in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic.
How did we get here?
Addiction to opioids goes back centuries, but the current crisis really started in the 1980s, when a handful of highly influential journal articles relaxed long-standing fears among health care providers about prescribing opioids for chronic pain.
The pharmaceutical industry took note, and in the mid-1990s began aggressively marketing drugs like OxyContin. This aggressive marketing, combined with a new focus on patient satisfaction and the elimination of pain ("Pain as the 5th vital sign"), sharply increased the prescribing of pharmaceutical narcotics.
However, the medical community became aware of the increase in opioid addiction and overdose deaths that resulted from this wave of overprescribing, and the "pain as a 5th vital sign" campaign was nixed. As health care providers tightened restrictions on opioid prescribing, those who previously used pharmaceutical opioids could no longer get them from their medical providers -- leading them to seek out opioids illegally in order to prevent themselves from suffering from the symptoms of withdrawal.
What do we do now?
So, now that we are here, what do we do? Of course, access to treatment for opioid addiction and increasing the public awareness of overdose reversal drugs (like Narcan) are critical to fighting this epidemic.
However, the KEY is prevention! As health care providers, we need to encourage our colleagues to consider complementary methods for pain management, and this is where acupuncture comes in. I believe that we are at a turning point for the mainstreaming of acupuncture for pain management in the United States.
Why acupuncture? Acupuncture works by:
- Stimulating the production of the body’s own endogenous opioids and neurotransmitters/endorphins
- Stimulating the production of the body’s natural anti-inflammatory compounds
... and does so without the risks of addiction or serious side effects.
Professional societies, insurance companies, and others are taking note of acupuncture's effectiveness for pain management.
As of 2019, Blue Cross of Tennessee, the area's largest health insurance provider, is no longer covering Oxycontin for pain management, adding acupuncture to the list of modalities that providers should consider.
The American College of Physicians has also updated their guidelines for the treatment of acute and chronic pain, stating:
"Given that most patients with acute or subacute low back pain improve over time regardless of treatment, clinicians and patients should select nonpharmacologic treatment with superficial heat (moderate-quality evidence), massage, acupuncture, or spinal manipulation... ( ACP, 2017).
We are truly at a crossroads and I am excited that the "western" medical community is taking note of the benefit that traditional "eastern" treatments such as acupuncture can truly have for those suffering from pain.
If you have questions about acupuncture and pain management, reach out to me via my website or speak with your primary care physician. And please, spread the word!