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Addiction Treatment Options, Drug Addiction, Facts About Addiction, Substance Abuse  |  June 29, 2016

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), over 50 million Americans suffer with significant to severe chronic pain.  Low back pain is the most common (27%) type of pain, followed by severe headache or migraine pain (15%), neck pain (15%) and facial ache or pain (4%).  Over half (52.7%) of the U.S. workforce reports having headache, back pain, arthritis, or other musculoskeletal pain in the past two weeks, and 12.7% of that workforce lost productive time in that two-week period due to pain.

Combine the epidemic of chronic pain with massive spending by pharmaceutical companies to push opioid painkillers as the solution to pain, and you get our current crisis of addiction.

But is there another path?  Is there a treatment modality that might be able to address chronic pain – and help break the grip of addiction?

A number of researchers think there is… and it’s a modality from traditional Chinese medicine called acupuncture.

Used by practitioners to address a myriad of health problems for over 2,000 years – there is a growing body of medical evidence that acupuncture can, in fact, ease pain – and might be a useful tool for reducing the cravings that lead to chronic addiction.

According the Mayo Clinic, “traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as qi or chi (CHEE) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance… restoring health.”

Acupuncture’s place in Western medicine had an odd start.  In 1970, while then President Richard Nixon was in China, a correspondent for the New York Times (William Saffire) developed appendicitis.  He underwent an appendectomy in a Chinese hospital and, in lieu of anesthesia, received acupuncture to manage his pain during the surgery. He remained awake throughout the procedure.  He not only recovered beautifully, but was so taken by what he’d experienced first-hand that he wrote about it for the Times.

And interest in acupuncture in the West was born.

A recent statement from the Joint Acupuncture Opioid Task Force, Acupuncture Now Foundation and the American Society of Acupuncturists outlines a number of benefits acupuncture might bring to the opioid crisis, stating “acupuncture has the potential to reduce or even in some cases eliminate the need for opioids and non-opioid drugs (in the treatment of chronic pain) while also helping to treat opioid addiction.” A number of scientists suggest that acupuncture can replace synthetic opioids by stimulating the production of the human body’s “endogenous opioids” – without the risk of side effects.

In fact, acupuncture is reported to increase the levels of various chemicals in the central nervous system – enkephalin, epinephrine, endorphin, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

Could acupuncture actually be an effective stand-alone treatment option in addiction rehab?  So far – most of the research on that question is inconclusive.  What is clear is that acupuncture, practiced well, can substantially reduce pain for chronic sufferers… and do so without the life threatening and highly addictive side effects common to opioid use.

Photo credit: Wonderlane via Foter.com / CC BY