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Opioid Use and Abuse: Can Acupuncture Help?

Most of us have encountered someone in our lives who struggles with an addiction to what was once a medically-prescribed drug. The overuse of prescription pain-relieving medication, and of opioids in particular, is dramatically on the rise both in the United States and around the world. Can acupuncture be used as an alternative to addictive prescription pain-relieving meds for people seeking relief from chronic pain? How about as a way to reduce dosage and therefore reduce risk of addiction and other side effects?

Opioids include drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, which are mostly prescribed for treating moderate to severe pain. The drugs work by attaching to opioid receptors found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract and other organs in the body--reducing the perception of pain and producing a sense of well-being. The downside? They also produce drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea, and constipation. And oh yeah, they are highly addictive. An estimated 26.4 to 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide, with an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.

The facts get scarier than that. The number of unintentional overdose deaths from prescription pain relievers overall have quadrupled since 1999, with overdose deaths due to prescription opioids more than tripling. There was a five-fold increase in treatment admissions for abuse of prescription pain relievers between 2001 and 2011. In 2010 alone there were 13,652 unintentional deaths from opioid pain relievers (comprising 82.8 percent of deaths from all prescription drugs). In that same decade, positive opioid tests among drivers who died within one hour of a crash tripled.

This hits close to home in our native state of Colorado, where we have seen prescription drug opioid death increase four-fold in the past ten years. In fact, Colorado was awarded more than $2 million in federal funding to combat opioid addiction in 2016. It may not come as a surprise to learn that Colorado, one of the first states to legalize marijuana, stands out as a top consumer of all four major substances, including marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, and non-medical opioids.

Alongside alarming rises in numbers of opioid drug abuse, comes the unintentional partnership with the current medical establishment: the total number of prescriptions for opioids have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, with the United States the biggest consumer globally. Although opioid medications effectively treat acute pain and help relieve chronic pain for some patients, their addiction risk presents a dilemma for healthcare providers who seek to relieve suffering while preventing drug abuse and addiction.

So once again: can acupuncture be integrated into part of a solution? Clinical studies indicate that acupuncture stimulates the brain’s own natural opioid system, including endorphins and enkephalins that inhibit pain, decrease stress, and lower blood pressure. In a research study conducted by Duke University Medical Center anesthesiologists, acupuncture used both before and during surgery yielded impressive results: significantly reducing levels of painkillers required after surgery, with side effects such as nausea, dizziness, itching and urinary retention cut in half.

Numerous other studies reveal the release of natural opioids with acupuncture, such as those conducted at the UC Irvine School of Medicine. Cardiology researchers demonstrated repetitive electroacupuncture yielded significant lowering of blood pressure that lasted for at least three days by increasing the gene expression of enkephalin, one of three major opioid peptides produced by the body.

If combining acupuncture with opioid medications would assist in lowering a person’s dosage or allowing them to get off of the medication altogether, it would make sense that acupuncture could play a significant role in preventing risk of addiction. It is estimated that more than 100 million people suffer from chronic pain in this country, and for some of them, opioid therapy may be appropriate. However, the bulk of American patients who need relief from persistent, moderate-to-severe non-cancer pain have back pain conditions (approximately 38 million) or osteoarthritis (approximately 17 million)--both conditions that respond favorably to regular acupuncture treatment.

With no long-term studies demonstrating that the benefits of opioid prescriptions actually outweigh the risks, in my humble opinion the medical establishment should be actively seeking solutions. Wiith the military already exploring acupuncture as a way to reduce the dosage of pain relievers, doesn’t it make sense for the national medical establishment to follow suit?

To learn more about America’s addiction to opioids and what the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is doing about it, click here.

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