Got a backache? If you’re like most people, you probably reach for a bottle of ibuprofen (Motrin). If the pain is more severe—say, a broken bone or a piercing ache after surgery—you, like millions of Americans, may be prescribed a highly addictive opioid, such as oxycodone (OxyContin) or hydrocodone (Vicodin).

Now: Acupuncture, an ancient form of healing that has been practiced and refined for centuries, is increasingly being used in the US as the go-to treatment for pain relief. About three million American adults receive acupuncture each year, with chronic pain being the number-one reason—whether it’s back, neck or shoulder pain, chronic headache or osteoarthritis.


If the thought of being stuck with needles sounds more pain-inducing than pain-relieving, there are a few details you need to know. It’s true that acupuncture involves “needling”—or the insertion of needles through your skin. But it’s worth noting that the typical acupuncture needle is sterile and no wider than a strand of hair.

When these needles are inserted by a skilled acupuncturist, it doesn’t hurt. The most that some people feel is a mild tingling or pinprick sensation at the outset. During a typical session for a pain-related condition, the acupuncturist might use 10 to 20 needles, often placed in such areas as the limbs, back and scalp.

The needles are inserted into specific “acupoints” throughout the body, based on the ancient Chinese philosophy that our health is governed by the uninterrupted flow of qi (pronounced “chee”), or bioenergy, through the body. According to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, when one’s bioenergy becomes blocked, it builds up like water behind a dam, leading to pain and/or dysfunction. Needling a combination of acupoints—there are thousands of them—can relieve qi blockages and elicit the body’s natural healing response.

Needling also signals the brain and spinal cord to produce chemicals and hormones, such as endorphins, that function as the body’s own pain relievers, as well as natural anti-inflammatory compounds.

The result: Less need for pain medication. Many patients also feel less stress and sleep better following acupuncture—benefits that also help them cope with pain.

So what happens when you go for acupuncture? You’ll be asked to lie on an exam table for the treatment. You can usually remain clothed, though you may need to remove a shirt or your socks, for example, if they are covering an area that will be needled. In some cases, you may prefer to change into a gown provided by the practitioner. You can expect to see your acupuncturist once or twice weekly for five to 10 sessions that last about one hour each. Not all insurance (including Medicare) covers acupuncture. Check with your insurer.


On the heels of a shocking report that more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, the US Department of Health & Human Services recently declared the abuse of pain-relieving opioids a public health emergency.

Not only does acupuncture lessen the need for opioids, it can help –opioid-addicted individuals through the painful withdrawal process. When a person addicted to opioids first quits, he/she will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, including insomnia, pain, leg cramps, irritability, nausea and constipation.

Medications such as methadone (Dolophine or Methadose) and buprenorphine (Subutex) are prescribed to ease withdrawal but tend to backfire. Methadone must be taken daily, with each dose providing pain relief for about four to eight hours. However, methadone is highly addictive, and misuse of this drug can be fatal. Buprenorphine can cause side effects such as muscle aches, nausea, constipation, sleep problems, irritability and more.

Acupuncture, on the other hand, has no side effects…may help prevent relapse…quells cravings…and does not require the patient to take yet another drug.

It’s all about the ears: When treating people addicted to opioids, many acupuncturists follow an auricular, or ear-focused, acupuncture protocol endorsed by the US National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA). Auricular acupuncture is based on the belief that points on the ears correspond to different areas of the brain and body. The NADA-approved protocol, also called acudetox or 5-Needle or 5NP ear acupuncture protocol, involves inserting three to five needles into each ear at specific points.

For opioids such as OxyContin, one to three months of daily acupuncture are needed to get through the worst of the detox process.

To get more information on the NADA-approved protocol, visit For general pain relief, you can find an acupuncturist with multiple years of training and certification at


For certain conditions, acupressure—applying pressure or massaging acupoints—can be as effective as acupuncture. How it works: Massaging one point on the body can relieve symptoms in other parts of the body via pathways called meridians.

You can try acupressure for 30 to 60 seconds once or more daily on yourself or another person for…

Frontal headache: Massage the fleshy spot between the thumb and pointer finger with firm pressure. This point is known as Large Intestine 4.

Nausea: Massage the spot on the palm side of the forearm, three finger widths from the base of the palm, between the two tendons in the middle of the forearm. This point is known as Pericardium 6.

Note: During opioid withdrawal or after surgery, traditional acupuncture is more appropriate than acupressure.

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