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How to bridge East and West in approaching the Opioid Epidemic.

Understand why Americans are in pain and how to bridge the divide between the two medicines.

· acupuncture,pain,biomedicine

The current opioid epidemic is predicted to claim 500,000 lives over the next 10 years1. It is an epidemic that brings over 1,000 people everyday to the emergency room2, taxing hospital resources and placing an economic burden of nearly $95 billion a year on insurers3. The big question that hangs over this epidemic is: why are so many Americans using and/or abusing opioids? There is heated public discussion around the origin of this epidemic, but there is one fact that needs to be given attention above all: patients are prescribed opioid medication such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine to treat pain. In light of this, I amend my previous question: why are so many Americans in pain?

More than 116 million Americans (30% of the population) are living with chronic pain - that’s more than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined.4 Americans are more likely to perceive and report pain more often than other industrialized nations such as Australia and Great Britain.5 In The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan’s conversations with pain researchers, three theories emerged as to why: obesity, mental-emotional disorders, and overconsumption of painkillers. With this understanding, seems a overall better approach would be to improve digestion, support positive mental health, and mediate the perception of pain rather than myopically focusing on the symptom of pain.

This is where the acupuncture and East-Asian Medicine community can help. This medicine clearly explains the relationship between digestion, emotions, and pain while providing diagnostic and treatment tools that allow practitioners to treat the root of the pain rather than merely placate the symptom. While we help with pain we can also help to improve digestive function and address the seven emotions. One of the first moments I truly understood the digestive-emotional-pain connection was while observing in the student clinic during my master’s clinical training: A patient came in with full-body fibromyalgia pain that had him bedridden for the previous three days, for which he took high-dose prescription opioids and applied topical analgesic creams. In reviewing his chart, he has a history of digestive distress and depression as well as fibromyalgia pain. As I watched him struggle to lie face-down on the table, the severity of the pain this man deals with on a daily basis became shockingly apparent - it took him approximately 4 minutes to complete a task that most capable patients would complete in under 10 seconds. After witnessing the patient’s painful process of lying down, the student intern gave a treatment focused on tonifying the Spleen, calming the spirit, and relieving pain, and left the patient on the table for 35 minutes. Once the needles were removed and the patient was free to get up and go home, I couldn’t believe my eyes - the patient picked himself up and off the table with such ease you wouldn’t have known he had spent the three days prior in bed because of paralyzing pain. During the next appointment, he explained that his digestion was significantly better for the 4 days following the treatment, his mood was improved for about a week, and his pain was markedly less for the 8 days following the treatment. This man’s integrative approach to managing his pain allowed him to live 8 relatively pain-free days after 7 years of living with chronic daily pain.

The acupuncture and Oriental Medicine community understands the benefits to this integrative approach, so how can we get buy-in from the Western medicine communities as well? I don’t have a straight answer, but I have thought through a strategic approach as to how we could find an answer. It is as follows:

  1. Do the research. Speak with and question Western medical professionals to understand how they perceive acupuncture. What’s their definition of integrative medicine? What are their positive associations with acupuncture? What are their hangups? What are the schools of thought around acupuncture in their community?
  2. Find the “Slim”. The “Slim” is a reference from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, where Slim was one of the group while being the ultimate informal authority that governed the behavior of the group. Finding the “Slim” in the Western medical community is about finding the widely-respected influencers and co-inventing the proper approach to wide-spread adoption of acupuncture into integrative medicine.
  3. Speak in their language. By speaking in a language familiar to Western medical professionals, you’re establishing credibility for yourself and the acupuncture community. It establishes a point of commonality between the two medical communities that leads to Western medical practitioners being more likely to hear your argument and open their minds to your ideas.
  4. Be patient - and persistent. Repetition is an effective educational strategy, so the more you show up and engage, the more likely you’ll be taken seriously.


Acupuncture is a safe, effective, and long-lasting approach to helping not only with the opioid epidemic but also with overall wellbeing of the people our communities. It is evident that the Western medical community is opening its mind more and more to this fact. The more acupuncture and East-Asian Medicine practitioners show up, establish credibility, and engage with the Western medicine community, the sooner we will establish a more substantial Integrative Medical system focused on providing the most effective healthcare to our communities.

1. Blau, M. (2017, June 27). STAT forecast: Opioids could kill nearly 500,000 Americans in the next decade [Web log post]. Retrieved January 28, 2018, from https://www.statnews.com/2017/06/27/opioid-deaths-forecast/

2. Opioid Overdose. (2017, August 24). Retrieved January 28, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/index.html

3. Cartalucci. M. (2017, November 16). Economic burden of opioid epidemic hit $95 billion in 2016 [Web log post]. Retrieved January 28, 2018, from http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20171116/NEWS/171119908

4. Wahrman, A., & Akers, W. (2017, November 9). America Is Losing the War on Chronic Pain [Web log post]. Retrieved January 28, 2018, from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/america-is-losing-the-war-on-chronic-pain#20

5. Khazan, O. (2017, December 20). America Experiences More Pain Than Other Countries [Web log post]. Retrieved January 8, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/12/america-experiences-more-pain-than-other-countries/548822/

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