Doris Keene, a 59-year-old Oregonian and Portland resident, had been an active lady for most of her life. She had raised four children and walked everywhere — in true Portland style. However, when her health took a turn for the worse, Doris’s doctor prescribed her opioids as a form of pain relief. As is often the case, the drugs gradually gave her less relief from the pain, and she eventually developed an addiction to the opioids.
Keene described her opioid use in an NPR interview, “My body was saying, ‘Well, if I take another one, maybe it’ll work.’ So, I mean, that’s just human nature. Especially when you’re in the kind of pain I was in. You get to the point after months and months of pain where you’re begging for anything — anything — to relieve the pain.”
Opioids are often seen as magical pain pills that will make everything better, but the reality of opioid use is very different. Unfortunately, doctors are quick to pull out prescription pads and send patients to the pharmacy for Vicodin and muscle relaxants. In 2012, more than 900,000 Oregonians, a quarter of the state’s population was prescribed opioids. Moreover, one-third of the state’s drug-related hospitalizations were due to opioid abuse.
Keene eventually found alternative treatments, like acupuncture, as a non-opioid way to ease her pain and help her live a fuller life in her approaching golden years. David Eisen, the executive director of the Quest Center for Integrative Health in Portland, where Keene now receives her treatment, urges doctors to stop looking to opioids as a first line of defense.
Eisen, or “Dr. Dave” as some patients call him, is board certified in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. “There should be an array of things for people to choose from,” Eisen told NPR, “whether it be chiropractic care, or naturopathic care, or acupuncture, nutrition, massage. Try those things — and if they don’t work, you use opioids as a last resort.”
The state of Oregon agrees with Eisen, and urges people who are suffering from illnesses or injuries to try alternative medicine first, in lieu of prescription painkillers. In January 2016, Oregon will bring in the New Year by funding alternative treatments under the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid.
Alternative treatments like acupuncture, yoga, meditation and other ancient Eastern medicines are the natural, safer choice. Prescription pain medication has been shown to lead to addiction and other severe health problems, like kidney and liver damage. People in Oregon who are in need of pain intervention will now be able to turn to alternative medicine.
Alternative medicine, specifically traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) dates back thousands of years. It still exists today because it is an effective form of therapy. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “TCM practitioners use herbal medicines and various mind and body practices, such as acupuncture and tai chi, to treat or prevent health problems.” The center’s website states, “In a 2012 analysis that combined data on individual participants in 29 studies of acupuncture for pain, patients who received acupuncture for back or neck pain, osteoarthritis, or chronic headache had better pain relief than those who did not receive acupuncture.”
One of TCM’s cornerstone alternative treatments is tai chi. Research published this month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2015) found tai chi to benefit “individuals with four common chronic conditions—cancer, osteoarthritis (OA), heart failure (HF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).” State and federal health programs can no longer ignore the health benefits of alternative treatments and TCM. In a country with serious drug abuse problems, prescribed opioids should be a treatment option that is far down on the list of medical interventions.