When I began practicing acupuncture decades ago it was a cash practice in an upper-middle-class neighborhood outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Back then there was no insurance coverage for acupuncture and my patients tended to be well-to-do. This is where I started treating opioid dependency. I didn’t have a preconception at the time about addiction; these were just folks who had experienced trauma, were prescribed narcotics for the pain, and had arrived at my office for pain management; weaning them off of opioids they had become dependent on was simply a given part of the treatment protocol in my mind.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I have written a book on opioid dependency. My intent was to demonstrate that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) could help avert opioid addiction by alleviating pain and contributing to a symptom-free withdrawal during the earlier stages of opioid dependency. Considering that recent studies have suggested that one can become dependent on opioids in just five short days, anyone who has had surgery or trauma and then prescribed opioids is at risk of dependency. I also wanted to create a practical resource that presented evidence-based scientific proof that TCM was one of the most effective treatment modalities available to combat opioid addiction. As it turns out, it has been proven invaluable for early stages of dependency as well as full-blown addiction.
All of us are, unfortunately, familiar with the term “autistic spectrum”; this refers to the fact that children can have very mild attributes of autism, very severe autism, or something in-between. This is true for opioid addiction as well. Someone can develop a dependency to opioids due to a recent trauma and resulting prescription; at the other end of the spectrum, they can be a hard-core addict whose life has spiraled out of control. It has been reported that nearly 80% of heroin addicts had their first experience with opioids in the form of a legitimate prescription. Therefore, it stands to reason that most addicts register on the spectrum with a mild dependency.
Unfortunately, in the midst of an opioid epidemic, there are still uninformed individuals who only associate opioid dependency with the stigma of strung-out junkies, so to speak. People who are hooked on heroin will likely tell you that their first “drug dealer” was an- well-intentioned MD. The scenario often begins with the opioids’ efficacy for pain relief lessened within the first month and the need to up the dosage again-and-again to remain pain-free. Once their prescription runs out, they find that they are dependent on opioids and it is impossible to function on a day-to-day basis without opioid use. This results in desperate people dependent on opioids looking to purchase opioid pills on the black market. Opioid pills are quite costly, so this strategy becomes unsustainable. Therefore, they turn to cheaper heroin as they digress. Heroin is laced with fentanyl, which is exponentially stronger than their original prescription exposing them to the risk of overdose. This describes the downward spiral of opioid dependency and addiction that I have heard in my clinic from patients repeatedly.
Opioid dependency is so pervasive that it is hard to meet someone who does not know a family or friend who has been affected. These “addicts” are our church members, family members, friends, and co-workers; they are well-to-do, middle-class, or financially struggling individuals; they are white, black, Hispanic, and so on. This is something that can easily happen to your own child, as it did ours! We received the call that my step-son overdosed and was found on the side of the road at 1:30 AM one morning; our wonderful, college educated child with a good job, wife and baby, and a beautiful house in an upper-class neighborhood nearly died. I learned what NARCAN was that night and a thousand other deprived facts that I wish I had never been made aware of since.
I am in a rare position of having intimate knowledge of all areas of the addiction spectrum….Part 2 here