Acupuncture: Alternative Pain Management for Addicts

February 21, 2011

The practice of acupunture has begun to gain widespread acceptance as an alternative pain management tool, especially for recovering addicts.

Eric Amburgey doesn’t know how acupuncture works…but he doesn’t care.

“I don't understand how you can stick needles here and there … and get rid of the pain,” Amburgey laughed. “I just know that it works.”

As reported by Knox News, Amburgey began to experience chronic back pain last year, but he did not consider the option of using narcotics to dull or treat the pain for a moment. Amburgey is a recovering addict who has been sober for years, and he understands his own vulnerabilities.

The day his back locked up, though, and he found himself in excruciating pain and at the end of his rope, he decided to give something a try he had never considered to be a medical option: acupuncture.

Over the course of six months, Amburgey received 12 treatments, and has been pain-free for nine months, maintaining his drug-free state of being.

Acupuncture has been used as a pain management tool for thousands of years. It originated in China, appearing in the ancient Chinese text Shiji which was authored sometime between 109 B.C.E and 91 B.C.E.

Conventional Chinese practitioners believe acupuncture relieves blockages in the body and veins which allows qi, or an energy force, to flow freely throughout the body.

While acupuncture has been around for quite some time, the practice has gained widespread acceptance in Western medicine only over the past few years, said Anita Hill, an acupuncturist at Cornerstone Integrative Health Associates.

“In Western medicine, we're improving blood circulation and oxygenation, loosening [restrictions of tightened tissue], and releasing endorphins,” chemicals that send good signals to the brain, said Hill.

Amburgey, as the marketing director of the addiction recovery center Blount County's Cornerstone of Recovery, went to Cornerstone's “sister company,” Cornerstone Integrative Health Associates, for treatment. Cornerstone’s companion practice offers diverse forms of acupuncture, therapeutic massage and stress reduction techniques aimed to help manage chronic pain.

The purpose of creating this sister practice was to service the clients of Cornerstone who are recovering addicts and who need to avoid narcotics, even in painful situations like surgery. This client base, however, of recovering addicts makes up only about 2 percent of its client base, said founder Carolyn Weisenberger.

Their main clientele consists of people who are trying to avoid prescription narcotics out of fear of dependence, pregnancy, or general health concerns. The practice offers infant, pregnancy, and “raindrop” massage, which utilizes aromatherapy oils. The center also began to recently offer massage therapy geared towards cancer patients to help relieve some of the side effects related to chemotherapy and radiation.

Weisenberger also added that while there are some patients whose pain relief is dependent upon medication, it's a relatively low number. Skeptics are always abundant, of course, but Weisenberger states that most convert to the allopathic line of thinking after they experience the results of such alternative therapy for themselves.

“We're not replacing their physicians,” Weisenberger said. “We want to work with their physician or therapist.”

Scott West, director of operations for Knoxville-based outpatient detoxification company Recovery Strategies and a recovering addict himself, stressed the necessity for non-narcotic pain management alternatives.

“Some people with very severe chronic pain may have to have a low dose of some kind of medication,” said West, “but they need to be open to other alternatives.”

Recovery Strategies opened a companion company of their own, Pain Management Strategies, in November 2010. The practice offers massage therapy, physical therapy and stress coping skills.

'There are so many pain clinics out there that all they do is write a prescription and send people on,” said Brittany Southerland, who does intake for Pain Management Strategies. “Our main goal is to help people with their pain” before they turn to prescription painkillers.

Mental-health service provider, Peninsula, refers out for procedures such as massage and acupuncture, but performs on the site counseling, support groups, and classes for recovering addicts on mental techniques to deal with pain, as well as manage persistent thoughts and overpowering emotions.

Clinical social worker Daphne Crawford works in Peninsula's intensive outpatient program, and says that a strategy of some clinicians who must give pain medication to recovering addicts has been to suggest that the patients find a friend or family member to dole out the pills for them in regular doses, which will help monitor their intake of the drug and will give the patient a close, familiar support system.

“Addictive thinking says that we should never have pain … that we should feel good all the time,” Crawford said. “But part of recovery is accepting that some level of pain is a normal part of life.”

As is the nature to any substance that is being abused, addicts build up a tolerance to pain medication, and as such, “when you're abusing pain medication, taking an ibuprofen is like taking a Tic Tac”, Crawford said. “When your pain tolerance improves, non-narcotic drugs are more effective. When someone's in addiction, they don't believe that. They think we're pulling their leg.”

“There's a lot more alternatives” to narcotics and prescription painkillers “than there used to be,” Crawford stated.