Treating the opioid crisis: Drugs or needles?

Blacksburg Acupuncture Clinic

Blacksburg, Va., Feb. 26 – Over a dozen acupuncture clinics exist in the New River Valley area to provide pain management and strategy for recovering drug addicts, including Blacksburg Acupuncture Clinic pictured above. PHOTO: Aly De Angelus

by Aly De Angelus —

Despite national coverage on opioid drug overuse, officials have been unable to answer the public’s most pressing question — How can we provide an effective, safe and economically sound treatment to everyone that needs help?

The question isn’t simple. Researchers have been bombarded with experimental regulations, constrained by low budgets and stifled by ethical protocol. Stuck in reverse, researchers are now burdened with social stigma toward addicts.

If America wants to end the opioid crisis, it’s time to make some decisions. For starters, are the majority of U.S. citizens in agreement that Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is an ethical way to cope with withdrawal and seek recovery under health care professionals? If not, how can non-medicinal treatments such as behavioral therapy, safe injection sites or acupuncture yield successful results?

“I think acupuncture can be more effective than opioids for pain,” said Greg Bryson, acupuncturist and massage therapist at New River Valley Healing Hearts. “In chronic pain patients, the use of opiate medications sometimes require increasing doses for the same relief.  Unfortunately, that’s not sustainable forever.”

According to Acupuncture Now Foundation‘s website, two recent scientific studies, published by the NIH, suggest that acupuncture is twice as effective as conventional care for treating chronic back pain. Other benefits of acupuncture include managing stress, controlling chemical levels in the central nervous system, improving quality of sleep and aiding pain management. The goal of acupuncture is to target the body’s natural opioids so that you don’t have to look elsewhere for synthetic results.

Since exploring the ancient Chinese practices of acupuncture in 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) determined acupuncture to be an acceptable therapy for drug treatment and specified its application for western medicine in 1997.

In the past decade, military and veteran affairs have begun promoting alternative pain treatments including yoga, meditation and acupuncture. Evidence Based Acupuncture, an online database for acupuncture research, is working hard to prove clinical merit and eliminate skepticism in their work. Through these non-medicinal milestones, hundreds of medical facilities have changed their perspective and four states (California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Massachusetts) have granted insurance through Medicaid programs for acupuncture as an alternative to MAT.

The problem, however, is that it’s unclear how many opioid users are actually seeking high-powered drugs for physical pain as opposed to recreational use that likely intertwines with numerous psychological disorders.

“The stories are diverse but two-thirds of people who use substances, their original use, have trauma in their lives,” said Blacksburg native Anne Giles, who specializes in opioid use disorder research. “You ask about prevention? Let’s be kind to our children, let’s be kind to each other, let’s protect each other.”

Giles referred to medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone as the top treatments for opioid users. Last year, STAT News published an article about MAT treatment that highlighted one fundamental gap in modern-day research — all of these drugs on the market have different risks and benefits. If people can overdose and die on methadone and can’t on buprenorphine or naltrexone, is it ethical to consider them all effective based on their success rates alone?

For Victoria Taylor, a clinical acupuncturist in Christiansburg, Va., her involvement in drug recovery programs has taught her that both medication and acupuncture are fundamental in creating a holistic treatment plan that will keep opioid users from relapsing as long as possible.

“When you do acupuncture with people in chemical dependency programs … these are people where some of them haven’t slept in years, people who have experienced a lot of violence in their life and they are all slack-jawed, with their mouths hanging open and just completely relaxed and vulnerable,” Taylor said. “It’s not a substitute for treatment but it part of treatment.”

Part IV of the Virginia Register of Regulations specifically states that Virginian doctors must have a SAMHSA waiver to authorize buprenorphine prescriptions. In addition, federal law limits the number of treatment drugs distributed to patients on an annual basis.

“There is an artificial shortage because of federal policy,” Giles said. “That is why I am passionate and insane because yes, we have identified the problem. There is opioid use disorder. It’s happening so let’s treat it, but we can’t.”

For a better understanding of the opioid crisis in Virginia, click on the infographic below.

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