Is Acupuncture A Viable Alternative To Opioids For Pain Relief?

By Victoria Kim 02/23/18

Amid a growing drug crisis, Ohio's Medicaid program is turning to the holistic health technique as a non-opioid treatment for chronic pain. 

Close-up Person Hands Putting Acupuncture Needle On Face Of Young Woman

Acupuncture has been practiced in China for several thousand years as part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but some Western physicians are skeptical of its ability to provide relief.

But states like Ohio aren’t waiting around for the medical community to come to a consensus. As of this year, its Medicaid program now covers acupuncture for migraines and lower back pain.

State officials came to the decision amid one of the worst drug crises in the United States. In 2016, Ohio recorded 4,050 drug deaths, the same year that its drug overdose death toll was ranked second worst in the nation, after West Virginia.

While more Ohioans have access to the evidence-based medication-assisted treatment (MAT) than ever, acupuncture was not ruled out as a possible alternative. (MAT involves the use of addiction medications including methadone or buprenorphine.)

“We have a really serious problem here,” said Dr. Mary Applegate, medical director for the Ohio Department of Medicaid, according to the Associated Press. “If it’s proven to be effective, we don’t want to have barriers in the way of what could work.”

Acupuncture is defined by the federal research agency National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) as “a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body—most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.” Though the research on acupuncture suggests that it can help relieve chronic pain, and that it “appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain,” there is still no official consensus on whether it is a reliable treatment.

Other states where Medicaid covers acupuncture for pain include California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Rhode Island. In Massachusetts and Oregon, acupuncture is also covered for treating substance use disorder, based on the belief that it is able to reduce cravings.

Two-thirds of Veterans Affairs hospitals and treatment centers, on the other hand, have offered acupuncture since the VA first explored alternative treatments for pain including yoga and chiropractic care around 2009.

The VA is more open to alternative non-drug treatments given that the “need is so great” for effective pain relief, said a representative of the NCCIH. “Perhaps some of the approaches have been used without a strong evidence base,” said Emmeline Edwards. “They’re more willing to try an approach and see if it works.”

Furthering their commitment to researching chronic pain relief, the NCCIH, the Pentagon and the VA will spend $81 million on studying the effectiveness of several non-drug approaches to treating chronic pain, the AP reports.

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