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Could Alternative Medicines Help Fight the Opioid Epidemic?

Close up of acupuncture needles lined up in a row.There has been a spike of interest in alternative pain treatments such as yoga and massage. When integrated with conventional medical treatments, they can help people cope with pain. According to a study published in Anesthesia & Analgesia, these treatments might help stem the tide of opioid abuse. The study suggests that pain reductions through these treatments may lower dependence on opioids and thus reduce the risk of opioid abuse.

Pain and Opioid Abuse: Understanding the Connection

The 2012 National Health Interview Survey found that 11% of American adults experience chronic pain. In other words, they have daily pain for at least three months. Chronic pain isn’t fully understood, and it can be difficult to treat. When other strategies don’t work, doctors may prescribe opioids to people experiencing chronic pain. In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 38% of Americans took an opioid prescribed by a doctor.

Though these drugs can relieve pain in the short term, they can quickly become addictive. In a 2014 study, 75% of people who abused opioids in the 2000s said their first exposure to opioids was through a prescription medication. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended doctors curb their prescription of opioids for noncancerous patients. But drug addiction can happen even when doctors provide careful supervision.

Addressing the opioid epidemic requires addressing America’s epidemic of pain.

Alternatives to Opioids

Researchers at Harvard Medical School wanted to assess the role of alternative medicines in managing pain. They analyzed 32 studies of alternative pain treatments. These included:

Most of the studies did not directly evaluate the effects of alternative treatments on opioid use. Instead, they looked at the degree to which the treatments could reduce pain. The preliminary evidence suggests that most of the treatments are beneficial in managing chronic pain.

Nutritional supplements had the weakest evidence for their effectiveness, and acupuncture had the strongest evidence. The research also showed acupuncture can lower the dose of opioids needed after surgery.

This research is preliminary in nature. It suggests people with chronic pain could benefit from alternative treatments. However, the scope of those benefits is unknown. Further studies could explore how alternative medicines specifically affect opioid use or assess their unique mechanisms of pain relief.


  1. Cicero, T. J., Ellis, M. S., Surratt, H. L., & Kurtz, S. P. (2014). The changing face of heroin use in the United States: A retrospective analysis of the past 50 years. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 821-826. Retrieved from
  2. Integrative medicine approaches for pain treatment: Can they be an alternative to opioids? (2017, November 21). EurekAlert. Retrieved from
  3. Lin, Y., Wan, L., & Jamison, R. N. (2017). Using integrative medicine in pain management: An evaluation of current evidence. Anesthesia & Analgesia, 125(6), 2081-2093. Retrieved from
  4. More than 1 in 3 Americans prescribed opioids in 2015. (2017, August 1). CBS News. Retrieved from
  5. NIH analysis shows Americans are in pain. (2015, August 11). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Larry T

    December 13th, 2017 at 2:31 PM

    Anyone who has dealt with long-term chronic pain knows that pain killers only work so well for so long. Over time you adapt to them and they lose their effectiveness. The only thing I have found effective has been to rethink my relationship with pain, and gradually build up a pain tolerance.

  • Amanda

    October 24th, 2018 at 12:49 AM

    Larry, I agree with your statement that the painkillers only work so well for so long because the body builds a tolerance to them just like it does to other medications as well as a dependency on them becoming dangerous to health of said person trying for relief. Doctors and pharmaceutical companies know this and are in it but still overprescribing to make a ton of money without informing patients of risks and then they are called drug seakers for following docs orders. So may I kindly ask how one is supposed to increase their pain tolerance when suffering from chronic pain and most likely now over many years by not abuse but still ashamedly addicted to opiates, how is one to raise their pain level? If you don’t mind me asking, please kindly tell me and I am seriously not meaning this in a jerk way . I really would love to know how you accomplish this. It would be very useful information if you wouldn’t mind sharing, it would be greatly appreciated, really!! And not trying to get out of own choice of taking pills because that was an option. That being said it shouldn’t have been the only one at every doctor for most people and our government is so suprised we have an epidemic?! BS!! Please share how you did this, thank you kindly!

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