Acupuncture's role in solving the opioid crisis
It's been all over the news recently - you've probably heard it - the United States is facing an epidemic of overdoses and addiction from opioid use. According the CDC, "As many as 1 in 4 people who receive prescription opioids long term for noncancer pain in primary care settings struggles with addiction." Does that figure floor you?! If it doesn't, it should.
I see patients everyday that are taking prescription opioids for varying reasons - chronic low back pain, acute trauma from car accidents, and other pain related issues. I often wish that my office had been their first or second stop along their pain journey instead of the last one/last ditch effort to get out of pain. Here's why - acupuncture treats pain and it treats pain REALLY WELL in most people...but not as well while they are taking opioids.
Part of the way that acupuncture works for pain is stimulating the release of pain relieving chemicals called endorphins. Notice that word, endorphin, looks a bit like another word we all recognize - morphine, the quintessential opioid drug. That's no accident. The drug is made to mimic the chemicals that our bodies already make, so that they can bind with receptor cites in the brain and reduce pain. The problem is that these drugs have dangerous side effects and are also highly addictive.
So, the way that I explain it to patients is to think of your receptors as seats at a table. If you are taking opioid medications then some of those seats are already occupied making it take longer for the chemicals that acupuncture helps your body to release be able to take a seat. It's a game of musical chairs if you will. Overtime, as you start to feel better and therefore start reducing your opiate medication slowly, the natural chemicals can sit down at the table and give you pain relief without the harmful side effects.
I'm not trying to discourage a current opiate user from getting acupuncture - quite the opposite! Acupuncture can help you to reduce your medications over time and get you out of pain, but I am saying that prevention is key. If we can help you avoid ever having to go on an opioid drug with acupuncture, then I count that among our biggest successes.
If you, or someone you love, are having pain and looking for an effective and safe alternative to taking drugs, seek out an acupuncturist near you.