Hoping to Avoid Opioids, Pain Patients Turn to Acupuncture and Alternative Routes

Acupuncturists place needles in various points throughout the body. (Image: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia)
Acupuncturists place needles in various points throughout the body. (Image: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia)
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For former bodybuilder Martin Glaz, working out is one of the most important aspects of his life. But earlier this year, just a few months ago, he couldn’t move his right arm at all due to a debilitating nerve injury.

"I’m used to putting myself through ridiculous amounts of pain, and lifting weights, tearing my elbow, tearing my knee… and this pain was something that was off the charts," Glaz said.

For pain patients like Glaz, all too often the typical solution has been a trip to the doctor, a diagnosis, and an opioid prescription. Dr. Ali Mchaourab, Chief of Pain Medicine Services at the VA, says the over-prescription of opioids for long-term chronic pain started in the 1980s.

"There was an aggressive campaign by pharmaceuticals, and sometimes even misleading in certain instances that put pressure on society in terms of expectations and physicians in terms of meeting those expectations for patients… And suddenly, the medical community realized that we are actually giving a non-proven medication. Medications that are addictive, and cause significant harm," said Mchaourab.

It was those harmful side effects and risk of addiction that made Glaz talk to his doctor about alternate options.

"I go home, and basically say hi to my wife, take a pill, go to sleep," said Glaz. "Wake up at midnight, take a pill, go to sleep… I said well I don’t wanna be on this medication, can we try acupuncture?"

Dr. Mchaourab notes that pain management options that don’t involve opioids include physical therapy, medical procedures with freezing techniques, and even lifestyle changes.

But it can also include Eastern or traditional Chinese medicine modalities, like massotherapy, tai chi, or acupuncture.

After just two acupuncture sessions in February, a few weeks after his initial injury, Glaz was able to stop taking his pain pills.

"To have after the second treatment, I don’t have to take some chemical like that… it wasn’t coincidental," said Glaz. "Not when I was supposed to be on that for 8-12 weeks."

Every week, acupuncturist Julia Proctor with University Hospitals Integrative Medicine, gently places needles into various points on Glaz’s body.

"For Martin’s treatment I do a lot of local points, the local area of pain," said Proctor. "So for him I do a lot of needles that are in the pec area, the lacs through his arm here."

Glaz says he doesn't necessarily feel the prick of the needle, but he can feel a sensation in the muscle and nerves when it goes in.

"With acupuncture, the reason why it works so well for pain, it increases circulation, reduces inflammation, and also encourages the brain to release hormones like serotonin and dopamine," said Proctor. "Those are hormones that are your body’s natural painkillers."

But the evidence for Eastern modalities like acupuncture is still quite weak, in the eyes of Dr. Mchaourab. And while acupuncture may work for people like Glaz, it may not work for everyone.

Acupuncture professionals, however, argue that it’s not fair to evaluate traditional Chinese medicine by Western standards.

But when it comes to chronic pain management, there’s one thing that both Western and Eastern medical professionals MAY agree upon: It’s not a one pill fix, says Dr. Mchaourab.

"So when we talk about chronic pain, it impacts psycho-social aspects of one’s life," said Mchourab. It’s not a medical condition that’s going to be treated by injection or a pill per se. It’s much more complex."

One of the biggest barriers to receiving acupuncture has been the lack of insurance coverage. In January of this year, Ohio Medicaid began covering some acupuncture services for low back and migraines, and now plans to expand the number of providers. Meanwhile, acupuncture advocates are aiming to broaden that coverage even more.

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