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How Acupuncture Treatments Can Be a Healthy Alternative to Opioid Drugs


The opioid crisis is one of the major health challenges in the United States today, and it’s responsible for destroying thousands of lives. Whether addiction stems from prescription medications or illegal street drugs, more than two million Americans are victims of opioid misuse.

Finding alternatives to highly addictive opioid drugs is a crucial key to combating this epidemic. Increasingly, holistic practices have been looked at as safer and more effective alternatives to opioids. Acupuncture treatments, among other drug-free therapies, offer pain management solutions with minimal burden to patients, opening up a wide variety of opportunities for people to seek pain relief without the side effects of opioid drugs.

Understanding the Opioid Crisis

acupuncture-treatments-alternative-opioid-drugs The United States is in what’s currently being described as the “Opioid Crisis.” Up to 130 people die every day in the United States from opioid overdoses. The misuse of opioids, ranging from heroin, prescription pain relievers, and synthetics such as fentanyl, has become a severe burden on social and economic welfare, as well as a public health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the epidemic costs the United States $78.5 billion a year, including treatment costs, law enforcement, healthcare, and lost productivity. 

The crisis has its roots in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies reassured doctors that opioid pain relievers were safe and addiction-free, leaving healthcare providers to prescribe them in great numbers to patients who complained of pain. The massive influx of prescription drugs has led to many patients becoming addicted, despite never touching illegal drugs. This led to the mass availability of heroin and synthetics, such as fentanyl, on the illegal market, allowing for the current widespread abuse of opioids in the country.  

By the late 2010s, the crisis had reached emergency proportions. On October 26, 2017, the United States officially declared the opioid crisis as a National Public Health Emergency and the federal government began necessary taking steps to address the epidemic. The United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Five-Point Opioid Strategy was released in April 2017 as a framework for the federal response to the epidemic. The strategy partially aims to, 

“Support cutting-edge research that advances our understanding of pain and addiction, leading to the development of new treatments, and identifies public health interventions to reduce opioid-related health harms...”

This is key for developing pain treatments that are alternatives to opioid drugs. Many have recognized the importance of holistic medicine, especially acupuncture treatments as alternative methods of pain management.  

Holistic Alternatives to Opioid Drugs

The options of other pain management methods over opioid drugs have increased with the crisis’s severity. Popular alternatives for pain medications range from over-the-counter drugs, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), to non-drug therapies that are used in conjunction with non-addictive medications. These include:

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy has been widely seen as a successful alternative to opioid drugs. Physical medicine and rehabilitation include options such as deep-muscle and ultrasound massages, whirlpools, as well as traditional physical therapy exercise programs that can prevent and manage pain from injuries or disabilities. 


This meditative movement practice has surged in popularity over the years and can not only improve fitness and reduce stress, but has been found to especially reduce discomfort in people with lower back pain. It also features mind-body techniques, including breathing exercises that can help induce relaxation and lower anxiety. 

Acupuncture acupuncture treatment

This increasingly popular ancient Chinese practice uses fine needles inserted in various “acupuncture points” across the body to treat pain. Since the needles are so small, they themselves do not inflict pain but can provide significant pain relief for those with regular appointments by interrupting pain signals throughout the body.   

Is Acupuncture an Effective Opioid Drug Alternative?

Acupuncture is an effective pain management alternative to opioid drugs and is at the forefront of some of the more touted holistic alternatives to pain issues. When performed by licensed acupuncturists, acupuncture is a safe and powerful modality for pain management for a variety of injuries and disabilities without the destructive side effects of opioid drugs. 

One meta-analysis of almost 18,000 patients across 29 randomized controlled trials found that certified, accurate acupuncture was significantly more effective than the absence of the service. 

It’s becoming increasingly accepted that acupuncture could be prioritized as a replacement for opioid drugs for both chronic and acute pain. Despite their effectiveness, acupuncture treatments are minimally invasive so they cause minimal burden to patients with no lasting side effects. 

What Does Acupuncture Treat?

Acupuncture treatments can be used to treat a wide range of symptoms, including stress management, pain control, and neurological and respiratory disorders. When used as an opioid drug alternative, acupuncture treatments can be manifested as either treatment for pain management or as an opioid replacement.

Acupuncture for Pain Relief

Acupuncture treatments have been increasingly known as the “go-to” for integrative therapy for its effectiveness on pain relief. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), results from a number of studies have found that acupuncture treatments reduce pain for a number of ailments, including types of pain that are often chronic such as low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain. 

Additionally, the side effects are minimal when compared to other pain management solutions. Relatively few complications from acupuncture have been reported when it’s administered correctly.  In 2017, the American College of Physicians issued recommendations for treating chronic lower back pain, including acupuncture as an effective non-drug therapy. As providers try to limit prescribing opioid drugs as pain management options, effective and as safe therapies such as acupuncture treatments are increasingly pushed to the forefront of pain control methods. 

Acupuncture as an Opioid Drug Alternative

Acupuncture has the potential to become a front-line treatment for pain management, reducing the number of opioid drug prescriptions being issued. As an opioid drug alternative, acupuncture treatments can be used in place of the prescriptions for acute to chronic pain for the same effects with only minimal burden on the patient.

A Cochrane study of five randomized trials and 285 patients found benefits of acupuncture for cancer pain relief when compared to traditional pain medications, which are often opioid drugs. Additionally, some studies suggest that acupuncture activities opioid receptors in the brain. When used in conjunction with acupuncture treatments, this would likely allow for lower doses of opioid medication to be needed for patients with severe pain.  

What are the Health Benefits of Acupuncture?

The health benefits of acupuncture treatments are numerous and can be used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions and symptoms. Besides its benefits as an opioid drug alternative, acupuncture can be used to treat everything from migraines and headaches to recovery from surgery. 

While the NCCIH notes that acupuncture treatments have been proven to help treat lower back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis, knee pain, and chronic migraines, the Acupuncture Evidence Project reviewed the effectiveness of acupuncture for 122 treatments over 14 clinical areas and have found some evidence of effect for 117 conditions.

Other conditions that acupuncture treatments can relieve pain for include:

  • High and low blood pressure
  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • Facial pain
  • Morning sickness
  • Dental pain
  • Inducing labor

Additionally, one of the more attractive benefits of acupuncture is that there are minimal side effects when compared to medication drugs, such as opioids. It’s a safe and non-addictive method for those looking for a minimally invasive pain solution.

Let HBS Handle Your Billing for Acupuncture Services so You Can Focus on Delivering Better Patient Care!

As the acupuncture service industry expands, you want to focus on growing your holistic practice and ensuring that your patients are receiving the best in acupuncture treatments. Billing for acupuncture services can be tedious, but it doesn’t have to be.  

Holistic Billing Services specializes in the unique requirements of acupuncture practices to ensure that they get the insurance reimbursements they’re entitled to receive for their services. By partnering with an experienced medical billing team, you can spend less time thinking about managing the ins and outs of CPT coding and insurance claims and more time delivering higher-quality care to your current patients.

Ready to accelerate your practice’s revenue cycle management and grow your acupuncture practice? Contact our billing and coding experts today.

December 14, 2020
 - by Antonio Arias, MBA, CHBME
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