Opioid-related overdose deaths have reached epidemic proportions in the United States over the past decade. Powerful opioid painkillers have been a traditional approach to treating both acute and chronic pain conditions, but the potentially dangerous side effects have led many healthcare professionals to seek safer alternatives.
One of those alternatives is grounded in Eastern medicine, and is based on centuries of positive patient outcomes. This alternative is known to the Western medical community as acupuncture, and pain management professionals have begun to incorporate this alternative therapy in their own clinical practices.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a traditional form of Chinese medicine, and has been practiced since at least 100 BC. Over time, it has evolved and spread to other countries, finally arriving on U.S. shores in the early 20th century.
Acupuncture consists of inserting tiny sterilized needles into the skin, targeting nerve centers and/or pressure points in the human body. It is commonly used as a form of pain relief, especially for chronic pain conditions like musculoskeletal pain, spinal disorders, and joint pain. A typical acupuncture session consists of multiple needles being inserted, ranging from just a few to 20 or more, depending on the type and severity of pain. The needles are often left in place for ten to 30 minutes. The needles vary in thickness and in manipulation; needles are often rotated or moved up and down relative to the patients’ skin surfaces to create a localized aching sensation. A specialized form of acupuncture called auricular acupuncture uses tiny metal darts that penetrate the skin of the patient’s ears, leading to surprisingly effective pain relief in many patients.
Acupuncture therapy may also incorporate the application of heat, laser light, pressure, or low-voltage electricity to enhance the effects of the therapy. There are both specialist acupuncturists and medical professionals that have received special training in the application and manipulation of the needles. A growing number of pain management clinics in the United States have added acupuncture to their rosters of treatment options for patients, believing that acupuncture is a safer alternative to painkillers while achieving much of the same effectiveness at treating chronic pain conditions.
Alternatives to Opioid Medications
In the pain management community, alternatives to potentially addictive or deadly opioid medications like Oxycontin, morphine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl, are a growing trend, according to Dr. Narinder S. Grewal of Advanced Pain Management. Medical cannabis-based treatment therapies are showing promise, and acupuncture has been received well by patients across the country.
Acupuncture has gained popularity based on its history and its reported benefits in mitigating pain. The benefits are free of the side effects of opioid painkillers, which include a high potential for abuse and the chance of overdose deaths. Acupuncture is also endorsed by the American Pain Society, one of the leading professional organizations for pain management specialists.
Much of the science behind how acupuncture works and why it produces beneficial effects remains unclear, and that has led to practitioners of acupuncture being the focus of skepticism. One of the remaining hurdles for incorporating acupuncture into pain management treatment protocols is that of medical insurance. Currently, only five states cover acupuncture when used in treating pain, while the remaining 45 states do not. Advocates of acupuncture, including professional medical organizations and healthcare providers, are working with insurance companies to improve patient access to this alternative therapy that has the potential to save lives.