As the opioid crisis deepens, some health care providers are turning to acupuncture as an alternative. Now military hospitals and other public programs hope to replace prescription painkillers with acupuncture.
With each tiny prick of a needle, David Ramsey gets relief from chronic back pain. He turned to acupuncture after becoming dependent on opioids due to a bad fall. "I ended up on oxycontin, oxycodone and morphine," Ramsey said.
With a record number of Americans dying from drug overdoses, fueled by prescription painkillers, doctors and patients are giving this ancient Chinese technique a second look to manage pain.
"We need something other than opiates and acupuncture actually works," said Jared West, an acupuncturist.
Practitioners say applying thin needles at just the right spot improves blood flow and releases hormones that spur natural healing and pain relief.
"There's a huge interest in people with chronic pain," West said.
Veteran Harry Garcia is receiving what's known as "battlefied accupuncture." The needles stay in the ear a few days. "My walking gets better, able to tolerate the pain a lot more," Garcia said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs and other military medical facilities have been at the forefront of using acupuncture as a substitute for opioids, but many researchers still question its effectiveness.
"There may be a certain amount of placebo effect, that is part of the response to acupuncture," said Dr. Ankit Maheshwari, a pain medicine specialist at Case Western Reserve University. "Having said that, it is still quite effective as compared to no treatment."
Ramsey says acupuncture worked for him. "It gives me a general sense of well-being," he said. That also helps him heal without prescription pills.
A small but growing number of Medicaid programs in states hard hit by the opioid crisis, such as California, are starting to cover the cost of acupuncture for low-income patients as an alternative to painkillers.
Acupuncture used as a weapon to fight opioid crisis
CIRCLE OF HEALTH