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Mariah VanHorn, Anah McMahon

Acupuncture may be the latest weapon in the fight against the opioid epidemic


As the number of opioid-related deaths continues to rise, some states are relying on an ancient Chinese technique to fight a modern-day epidemic.

A few states including, California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island, have begun to cover acupuncture sessions to treat those suffering with chronic pain. That's made all the difference for people like David Ramsey, who once depended on Oxycontin, Oxycodone, and Morphine, after a bad fall.

"What acupuncture does for me is it will, one it will decrease that level of pain. Two, it gives me a general sense of well-being."
David Ramsey, acupuncture patient

The opioid epidemic, which President Trump described as a "heath emergency," shows no signs of stopping. In 2016 alone, about 64,000 people died from overdoses, according to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. Those alarming statistics spurred officials to brainstorm alternatives to prescribing highly-addictive, and sometimes deadly, medications.

Acupuncturists like Jared West believe the ancient Chinese technique is a practical way to alleviate pain.

"There's a huge interest in people with chronic pain because there are so little options to treat it," he said.

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Researchers say that acupuncture works by applying needles to certain parts of the body. That pressure cultivates an energy called "Qi," which helps spur natural healing and pain relief. And it's this alternative form of medicine that has recently attracted the interest of a small, but growing number of insurance companies. The Medicaid program in Ohio, for example, began to pay licensed acupuncturists this year. That change in policy is particularly helping the veteran community, which once relied on prescribe opiates to manage pain and ailments.

"My walking gets better," said former armed forces veteran Harry Garcia. "[I'm] able to tolerate the pain a lot more, so this is why I continue to do it month after month."

According to a survey of military hospitals, two-thirds of military medical facilities provide acupuncture. Dr. Paul Pirraglia, an internist at the VA Medical Center in Rhode Island, treats about four veterans per week.

"Veterans have a lot more pain issues than the general population due to aspects of their service. So we were looking for something else to bring that was not pharmacologic."
Dr. Paul Pirraglia, internist at VA Medical Center in Rhode Island

But some doctors remain skeptical of acupuncture's healing properties. They argue that the practice creates a "placebo effect," meaning that patients are convincing themselves that the treatment is working.

Despite the criticism by some medical professionals, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs announced the launching of a comprehensive research project that will focus on non-drug approaches for pain management. The types of approaches being studied, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, includes meditation, structured exercise, spinal manipulation and acupuncture.

Check out Circa's coverage of the opioid crisis:
This Rust Belt county wants to bounce back, but the opioid crisis stands in its way
This cop and the opioid addict he arrested formed an unlikely friendship
The opioid crisis is creating a new generation of foster children

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