Since the mid-1990s, the opioid epidemic has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and created an economic burden that, according to some estimates, now totals more than $78 billion per year. Now the medical community has begun to look for alternatives to medications for reducing pain without the significant risks of addiction and overdose deaths.
Acupuncture has emerged as a potential solution for pain management without the dangerous risks opioids pose. It has been found to be a powerful, evidence-based solution that is a safe, cost-effective treatment for a number of types of pain, including: dental pain; headaches (tension headaches and migraines); labor pain; pain of the neck and lower back; osteoarthritis pain; and menstrual cramps. The cost-effectiveness of acupuncture, versus opioid drugs, also can dramatically decrease health care costs, both from the standpoint of the direct costs of treating acute pain, but also through avoiding the risk of addiction that requires costly care, destroys quality of life, and can lead to fatal overdose.
Recently, federal regulatory agencies, in an effort to stem the tide of opioid abuse and addiction have encouraged healthcare providers and systems, including Medicaid, to offer non-pharmacologic treatment options for pain. It can easily be incorporated into healthcare settings as diverse as doctor and dentist offices, emergency departments and labor and delivery suites to treat a variety of commonly seen pain conditions. Acupuncture is already being used successfully by the Veterans Administration and various branches of the U.S. Military, and in some cases, is significantly decreasing the volume of opioids prescribed when included in care.
Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through the skin at strategic points of the body. The Eastern explanation of how it works is that the insertion of the needles stimulates specific spots prompting the body to release a flow of energy, which travels through the body’s “meridians.” The Western version is that the needles stimulate a nerve, sending a signal to the brain to release endorphins, which work like the body’s own natural opioids to lower pain thresholds.
How to find an acupuncture practitioner
If you’re considering acupuncture, there are a few things you should know about how to find an acupuncturist who is adequately trained, safe and follows state and national guidelines:
• Ask people you trust for recommendations.
• Check the practitioner’s training and credentials. Most states require that non-physician acupuncturists pass an exam conducted by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
• Interview the practitioner. Ask what’s involved in the treatment, how likely it is to help your condition and how much it will cost.
• Find out whether your insurance will cover the treatment.
As with any medical procedure or service, always confer with your physician before proceeding. You may not be a candidate for acupuncture if you have a bleeding disorder or are on blood thinners, have a pacemaker or are pregnant.