Veterans who have acupuncture before surgery report less pain and need far fewer opioids to manage their discomfort, according to a randomized controlled study presented at a 2020 national conference of anesthesiologists. Veterans who receive acupuncture also report they are more satisfied with their pain control than those who do not.
“Six percent of patients given opioids after surgery become dependent on them, and veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental overdoses than civilians,” says Brinda Krish, DO, lead author of the study and an anesthesiology resident at Detroit Medical Center. “Clearly, it is crucial to have multiple options for treating pain, and acupuncture is an excellent alternative. It is safe, cost effective, and it works.”
The Detroit study used both traditional and battlefield acupuncture. Traditional acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles at specific trigger points around the body to relieve pain. Battlefield acupuncture, developed by a US Air Force doctor to reduce pain without the use of opioids on the front lines, uses tiny needles that are inserted at various trigger points in the ear.
Participants who had traditional acupuncture consumed an average of 20.4 morphine milligram equivalent (MME) for pain relief in the first 24 hours after surgery, while patients in the control group consumed 56 MME. Acupuncture recipients also reported significantly higher satisfaction scores regarding their post-operative pain management 24 hours after surgery (the median was 8, versus 5 among patients not receiving acupuncture). Acupuncture patients reported less pain, and 14 percent reported less anxiety.
Those who received battle-field acupuncture consumed half as many opioids in the first 24 hours after surgery compared to the control group. They also had significantly lower pain scores and higher patient satisfaction scores. Only 3 percent reported nausea and vomiting after surgery, compared to 38 percent of the control group. Researchers believe nausea and vomiting may have been reduced in the treatment group because some of the acupuncture points in the ear are located near trigger points for the stomach, gall bladder, and small intestines.
“Some patients were open to trying acupuncture right away, and others became more interested when they learned more about the risks of opioid use,” says Krish. “It’s easy, patients love it, it’s not just another medicine, and it’s very safe.”
Karen Marks, LAc, the owner of Alpenglow Acupuncture in Golden, Colorado, concurs. “Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with people as they prepare for and recover from surgery. One of the comments I hear most is, ‘My doctor is surprised at how well I am doing!’ Many times patients don’t need the pain meds as expected, and often their recovery time is much quicker. I’m so glad more and more research is substantiating what I’ve seen with my own eyes.”