Traditional Chinese Medicine for Opioid Painkiller Addiction
Opioid painkiller addiction has become increasingly common in recent years. With a wider selection of these medications available than ever before, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of overdoses associated with their use. In 2015, in the United States alone, there were 33,000 deaths due to opioid overdose. Of these, about half were caused by prescription painkillers.
Opioid painkillers are highly addictive. They are intended for short-term use only, but it is all too easy to become dependent on these powerful drugs. In fact, as many as 1 in 4 people who take opioid painkillers long-term will go on to become addicted.
Taking opioids over a long period of time greatly increases the chance of negative side-effects and accidental overdose. These drugs are notoriously difficult to come off due to their unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. However, it is possible to recover from opioid addiction, restore your health and rebuild your life. One of the best first line treatments is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
To understand how Traditional Chinese Medicine helps with opioid addiction, it is first necessary to understand how these drugs work and why it is that they are so addictive.
How do Opioid Painkillers Work?
Opioids are a class of drugs which are either derived from or mimic the effects of the opium poppy. They include:
- Diamorphine (the medical name for heroin)
These drugs work by binding to special receptors in the brain and nervous system. These receptors are normally stimulated by natural opioids, produced by the body. However, in chronic pain, these are not strong enough. Opioid painkillers boost their effects and reduce sensations of pain and discomfort. Opioids also increase levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. This the gives the user the feeling of well-being or euphoria – the “high” which can become so addictive. When these painkillers are taken over time, the body begins to secrete less of its own natural opioids and becomes less able to deal with pain. Eventually a tolerance develops and higher doses of medication are required to give the same relief. As the dosage increases, so does the risk of side-effects.
The side-effects of opioid painkillers include:
- Mood swings
- Suppressed coughing and breathing
When taken in excessively high doses, breathing can stop completely. If medical attention is not received quickly, this can result in death.
Treating Addiction – Rebalancing the Body and Mind
Addiction is a gradual process. It goes through many stages, from taking the drug for the first time, through steadily increasing use, to a complete lack of control.
At the peak of addiction you may find yourself avoiding social situations, lying to cover up your drug use or giving up doing things that you used to enjoy. You may find it difficult to maintain work and relationships. But the idea of giving up your addiction seems frightening and unachievable. You may experience strong cravings and withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, sweats, shaking or aches and pains. This is a serious problem which affects both the body and the mind.
Unlike Western Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine views the body and the mind as a whole. It always aims to treat both physical and emotional problems simultaneously. This means that as well as addressing the psychological aspect of the addiction, it can help to ease cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It is also an effective treatment for chronic pain, so it reduces the need for powerful prescription painkillers such as opioids.
Acupuncture for Addiction
Acupuncture is a branch of Chinese medicine which is commonly used in drug rehabilitation programs. It is thought to work by affecting the body’s levels of dopamine, meaning that opioid drugs produce less of a high. It also stimulates the body to produce more of its own natural opioids, promoting relaxation and relieving pain.
The most well known acupuncture protocol for addiction has been used successfully since the 1970s. It involves using five points in the ear. These have the effect of reducing anxiety, aiding peaceful sleep, rebalancing the nervous system and strengthening the internal organs.
In addition, this treatment can be combined with body acupuncture to treat the underlying cause of the addiction. Treatment is focused on the patient’s individual needs, whether that is pain relief, emotional support or dealing with other co-existing conditions. The aim is always to restore an optimum state of physical and emotional health and harmony.
Acupuncture may also be supplemented with Chinese herbs to reinforce the effects of the treatments and remove toxins from the system. Cupping therapy and massage can help to relax the body and relieve pain.
Acupuncture is an ancient therapy which has been tried and tested over the course of thousands of years. It has proven to be safe and effective, with a low risk of side-effects. It has stood the test of time and still has many applications in the modern world. Treating opioid painkiller addiction is just one example.
As a medical treatment, anything that you tell your acupuncturist is completely confidential. You can rest assured that your privacy will be protected while you seek the help that you need.
Managing Chronic Pain
There are many ways in which you can manage pain at home between treatments without turning to painkillers. Experimenting and finding what works for you is the first step towards managing your pain and recovering from addiction. You could try:
- Exercise – to strengthen muscles and improve mobility
- Hot or cold compresses
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – to find strategies for coping with pain
Getting the right emotional support is also important. Talk to trusted friends or family about what you are going through. Consider joining a support group with other people who are having a similar experience. They may be able to offer valuable help and advice.
Addiction is a bodily process which can be interrupted and reversed. And you don’t need to go through it alone. Traditional Chinese Medicine is just one of the ways in which you can start to get back on track. So seek support, ask for help and take back control of your life.
Dr. Marlena Siroki, DACM, L.Ac. is an Acupuncturist in Chicago at Ravenswood Chiropractic & Wellness Center in Andersonville. Dr. Marlena received her Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago. She is a Nationally Board-Certified Acupuncturist and Herbalist and Diplomate of Oriental Medicine, certified by the National Certificate Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.