Acupuncture for pain: Ancient medicine may hold the key to solving the opioid epidemic

Posted at 5:24 PM, Oct 31, 2017

With the opioid epidemic taking center stage and claiming an average of eight lives every day here in Ohio, there is a new push for alternative treatments for pain.

In fact, the Joint Commission, which certifies hospital systems, mandated non-pharmacological treatments for pain have to be part of hospital systems starting in January. Additionally, the American College of Physicians now says they should be included as a first-line therapy.

This is leading to growing awareness and popularity when it comes to ancient medicine, specifically acupuncture.

The treatment has stood the test of time.

“Its been around for 2500 years,” noted Christine Kaiser, Lead Licensed Acupuncturist at University Hospitals Connor Integrative Health Network.

And it has the science to back it up.

“There’s more and more research happening every day,” Kaiser said. “I feel like every week, I'm getting a new study that supports acupuncture for the treatment of low back pain or acupuncture for the treatment of migraines.”

And Debby Bruner is living proof that acupuncture works.

“It's like the first time in 8, 9 years I've been pain free,” she explained.

Bruner lived with intense jaw pain for years and typically turned to over-the-counter pain relievers.

“When it would get really, really bad, I would call the doctor and say, 'okay, I think I'm really flared up,'” she said. “And he would order me a steroid dose pack and he would give me my muscle relaxers.”

But when her employer, Cleveland Medical Center, started offering group acupuncture, Bruner figured she had nothing to lose.

“I said, 'if it doesn't work, it's not going to hurt me.' It's not like they're putting drugs in me to fix it.”

“Definitely with the opioid crisis right now, we need alternatives,” noted Kaiser. “We need some other way to help people with pain, and acupuncture is a great, I think, solution for that, because we're helping to have people feel better, have less pain and the side effects are none, compared to medications.”

Bruner said she felt results immediately.

“They just feel like these little pin pricks and even actually, after the first couple, you don't even feel it,” she recalled.

Years of pain now gone, thanks to non-traditional medicine.

But how exactly does it work?

“Acupuncture, in terms of biomedicine, we know that we're releasing endorphins in the brain, which are like the natural opioids or pain relievers,” Kaiser explained. “We also know we're increasing blood flow, we're decreasing inflammation in the body and helping people relax and de-stress.”

According to Kaiser, more doctors are now referring to acupuncturists for treatment.

Because of all the research supporting it, Ohio Medicaid will start covering acupuncture for back pain and migraines starting in January. Some employers, including University Hospitals, have added it as a covered insurance benefit.