If you’re having a total knee replacement, there’s a good chance that your surgeon will prescribe powerful opioid medications to ease the pain and discomfort.
This is concerning because their highly addictive nature and misuse has become a public health crisis. Fortunately, doctors are pointing to a natural solution from Traditional Chinese Medicine that can offer surprisingly powerful relief that’s safe and not habit-forming.
With over a million total knee replacements being performed across the United States each year, and the number expected to rise dramatically in the years ahead with the graying of the population, one possible solution to the worsening opioid crisis could be the ancient Chinese tradition of acupuncture.
Recommended on Both Sides of the Atlantic
Millions of Americans are prescribed opioids for chronic pain, but these can lead to opioid use disorder, overdose, and death.
As a response, the Centers for Disease Control issued clinical practice guidelines in 2016 to ensure patients have access to safer, more effective chronic pain treatment. One alternative they encourage is acupuncture.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), agrees. They state that “acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider.”
In the United Kingdom, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence issued new, similar guidelines in April 2021. They recommend treatments shown to be effective in managing chronic pain, including acupuncture.
Recent research backs up the confidence shown by these medical authorities, demonstrating just how valuable acupuncture can be in treating pain.
Acupuncture Reduces Need For Opioids
The latest acupuncture study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in October, involved 41 people who underwent knee replacement surgery.
Each went through the standard anesthesia protocol, but in addition were treated with electroacupuncture during surgery. This treatment involves applying a small electric current to thin needles inserted into acupuncture points in the ear to provide targeted pain relief for the knee. In the tradition of acupuncture, each acupuncture point is connected energetically to other parts of the body. This line of energetic connection is called a meridian.
Results showed almost two out of three patients (65 percent) needed only either a low-dose opioid (57.5 percent) or zero pain relief (7.5 percent) starting from induction of anesthesia to 30 days after surgery. This compares to just nine percent of post-surgical patients that would normally be expected to go without pain medication or need only low-dose pain medication in the 30 days following knee replacement. What’s more, all the acupuncture patients were able to discontinue pain medication after 30 days.
Acupuncture is often Overlooked
Stephanie Cheng, lead author of the study, who presented the findings, said “Most studies fail to incorporate non-traditional techniques such as acupuncture to help decrease the dependance on opioid medications for post-operative pain control.
“Our study shows that if a trained medical acupuncturist is available to perform acupuncture in the operating room, it can help patients with post-operative pain recovery.”
She added that acupuncture is commonly used as an effective method of subduing pain outside of the hospital setting. The time has come, she believes, to consider its use within hospitals, especially within the context of the deadly opioid epidemic.
For example, Dr. Cheng suggests that acupuncture’s powerful pain relief will allow patients to have success using only a low-dose opioid medication, and that could be critical in reducing the risk of long-term opioid use in patients. She advises patients to ask their surgeon whether they work with a trained medical acupuncturist.
Need to think Outside the Box
Outside experts were also positive about the findings of the study.
Dr. Nicolas Piuzzi, director of adult reconstructive surgery research in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, said it’s time to think outside the box when it comes to pain relief.
“We have major health problems with opioid abuse and misuse, so anything we can do to mitigate this problem is welcome. We would have to really assess the added value of acupuncture based on time, cost and resources, compared to other approaches,” he explained.
Chris D’Adamo, director of research for the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said, “If we have something like this with no side effects, many would be open to it, especially since we have witnessed the problem of opioid addiction subsequent to surgical procedures.”
In addition to pain relief, I think it’s important to mention that acupuncture provides a wealth of other health benefits from stress relief to improved immunity and digestion. No prescription pain medication can say that.
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