In 2016 42,249 people died as a result of an overdose of opioid pain medication, opioid analgesics, heroin or illicit synthetic opioids in the U.S. While it may seem unlikely that natural medicine and mindfulness can play a large part in the solution to this national crisis, scientific studies are disproving this assertion. The unique experience of veterans makes for a perfect study-case to demonstrate how holistic healing modalities have recently emerged as vital integrative modalities in medical setting such as the Emergency Room (ER) and surgery recovery.
Many veterans have experienced trauma resulting in chronic pain due to service; the VA (Veterans Administration) reported back in 2013 that more than 50% of veterans receiving care from the VA experienced chronic pain. Additionally, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injuries) due to modern warfare render veterans psychologically vulnerable to depression and suicide.  Some estimates indicate that our veterans are nearly twice as likely to die from an overdose, intentional and unintentional, then the general population.  These bleak facts, as detailed in my recently published book Natural Therapies for Overcoming Opioid Dependency, inspired the armed forces to search-out non-pharmacological solutions for pain reduction.
A few years back, the VA began compensating licensed acupuncturists in the community for services. More recently, VA facilities began offering acupuncture on-sight and the military is rapidly incorporating acupuncture for all service members and qualified veterans.  This action followed many scientific studies that were conducted by the armed forces, NIH (National Institutes of Health), and other researchers. One of these studies concluded that acupuncture significantly decreases the use of opiates and other pain medications among military personnel: opioid prescriptions decreased by 45%, muscle relaxants by 34%, NSAIDs by 42%, and benzodiazepines by 14%.). Additionally, the military considered that acupuncture has been proven safe and cost-effective when performed by a licensed acupuncturist.  
PTSD is especially troubling among returning troops and has proven difficult for western therapies to address adequately. Acupuncture has a strong influence on the brain, mental health, and PTSD. Researchers believe acupuncture lessens depression by increasing the levels of various endogenous opioids in the brain and has a direct impact on neurotransmitters and related receptor sites in the brain.  Additionally, several brain neurotransmitter systems involving opioids and GABA have been implicated in the modulation of dopamine release by acupuncture.” A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that there is evidence that acupuncture can help those suffering from PTSD and TBI sleep better.  The study noted, “Although the physiologic changes associated with acupuncture are complex, a unifying theme emerges across much of this literature, ie, the positive effects of acupuncture on autonomic nervous system measures,” they wrote. “Because insomnia is often considered to reflect heightened autonomic arousal, acupuncture’s ability to down-regulate such physiologic functions may play a role in reinstituting improved sleep, this being especially true in a veteran population with [mild] TBI and PTSD overlay.”
Acupuncture is not the only natural therapy shown to reduce the need for opioids; in early 2017 the American College of Physicians published evidence-based guidelines for low back pain treatment strongly suggesting the use of acupuncture, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, tai chi, yoga, etc. before prescribing pain killers. Many hospitals and doctors’ offices now incorporate a pop-up question on computer screens when MD’s try to prescribe opioids; it asks something like, “Have you tried acupuncture first before medications?” Modern Science is finally catching up to ancient beliefs about wellness and healing, and the Veterans Administration is largely responsible for opening the door to a wider acceptance of holistic medicine in their effort to provide improved evidence-based healthcare to our veterans.
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