What the Opioid Epidemic Really Means

America is in the midst of an epidemic.  Americans are hurting and turning to painkillers to ease their pain.  Unfortunately, opiates pave a road to addiction and death.  In 1999, 4,000 people died from overdoses.  The total number of deaths attributable to opiates skyrocketed to 62,000 in 2015, making the opioid epidemic a greater cause of death in our country than car accidents.  Put another way, prescription drugs end 78 American lives each day.

The feds have responded by declaring a war on prescription drugs and sending their agents out to investigate, prosecute, and penalize.  Cracking down on healthcare providers, government efforts have had the unintended effect of pushing sufferers to turn to heroin to ease their chronic pain.  Of course, the switch from legal to illegal pain management does nothing to reduce the chance of falling victim to an overdose, and many hooked on heroin have ended up on the slab.

Our government has it all wrong.  The opioid epidemic is not a drug epidemic but a failure of our current system of healthcare to effectively treat our chronic pain.  With the number of annual prescriptions for pain meds climbing to a staggering pinnacle of 289 million prescriptions in 2016, one thing is clear:  too many patients are left with no better option than to numb their bodies and sedate their minds in order to be able to function.  Revoking the licenses of pharmacists and doctors who demonstrate injudicious or criminal behavior may be a critical stopgap measure, but we ultimately need more innovation and flexibility in our management of chronic pain to get to the root of this problem.

Others have pointed out the absurdity of government policy that is punitive without offering any solutions to the complex dilemma of pain management.  We must always use opiates responsibly to control our aches and pains but we also need to be able to perform simple daily tasks without paralyzing discomfort.  One wonders if, between massive cuts in the healthcare budget and the war on prescription drugs, American patients dealing with chronic pain will be left with no good options beyond biting the bullet and getting through life as best they can despite the agony.

To be clear, this is not a partisan issue or, even, a political issue.  The pain epidemic and the opioid epidemic that follows in its wake is an American healthcare crisis.  Although we need our government to recognize that the American people need its support, not just law enforcement, it is even more important for our healthcare providers to respond to the crisis with new ideas and therapies.

Some good options for pain management do not need discovery but only await formal recognition.  Few alternatives to palliative care with risky opioids are as promising as traditional acupuncture.  As a treatment option, Chinese acupuncture care is methodical, well researched, low cost, and safe.  It can often be used by those who are not be good candidates for surgery and have exhausted other conventional treatments, patients who desperately require relief from chronic pain syndromes, offering them quality of life without the risk of addiction.

Those of us who use acupuncture have been successfully treating chronic pain for decades, but we need a shift on the part of lawmakers who develop policies to incorporate acupuncture care more completely into the mainstream.  Other CAM methods must be explored as well.  Only by first recognizing that Western medicine is failing these patients and then seeking out practical answers for chronic pain conditions will we be able to stem the rising tide of dependence on prescription opiates.  This is the only public health strategy that promises a permanent fix and sets American patients on a course that is safer, healthier, and happier.