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Acupuncture: A Pill-Free Way to Manage Pain

If you take an opioid to treat chronic back pain or some other injury suffered on or off the job, have you thought about finding an alternative? Opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone and codeine can be highly addictive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), addiction occurs in up to one in four people who are prescribed these and other opioids long-term.

Acupuncture, a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that dates back thousands of years, may be able to help you better manage your pain and use less of your opioid medication. In some instances, you might even be able to put it away for good.

What Is Acupuncture?

Typically, acupuncture involves licensed practitioners inserting fine needles just under the skin. The procedure is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and its benefits have long been recognized by leaders in health care like the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health. Acupuncture can treat a variety of health conditions but in the United States and Canada, it is most commonly used to relieve pain. In addition to back pain, many people find acupuncture to be helpful in alleviating pain caused by:

  • Cancer
  • Dental issues
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches, both tension and migraine
  • Childbirth
  • Neck injuries
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Menstrual cramps

Acupuncture needles are as thin as a strand of hair and most people feel very little pain when they are inserted. Proponents say any discomfort is temporary and minor.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupuncture needles are inserted at strategic places on the body that have a connection to your particular type of pain. These areas are called acupoints and according to TCM, the body has 360 of these special spots. When these acupoints are stimulated, it is believed that nearby nerve fibers signal the release of endorphins and other naturally produced pain-relieving chemicals, which travel to where your pain is located and neutralize it.

How Many Treatments Are Necessary?

The number of sessions required often depends on the cause of your pain. To achieve relief, someone trying acupuncture should expect to go between five and 10 times. Sessions generally last from 30 minutes to an hour.

How Much Does Acupuncture Cost?

Acupuncture sessions generally cost less than 100 dollars each. Prices may vary based on geographic region and practitioner experience. Some insurance companies will pay for treatment. Check with your plan before you go.

Is Acupuncture for You?

The only way to find out is to try it. Whether you are taking an opioid or not, if you are experiencing pain and have not been able to find relief, acupuncture is a drug-free therapy that may be worth exploring.

The LHSFNA’s new publication on alternatives to opioids, Exploring Options to Manage Pain: Therapies and Mind-Body Practices, provides additional information about acupuncture and other drug-free options for treating pain. To order this publication or others, go to and click on Publications.

Future articles of Lifelines will explore other complementary health approaches in more detail.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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