There may be a new way to treat postoperative pain and it’s one that’s been around for 5,000 years.
Researchers say the finding could help reduce opiate addiction in the future.
The study hasn’t been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal yet.
The research focused on veterans treated at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.
One group received hip replacement surgery. The other included people undergoing a variety of surgeries such as gallbladder removal, hernia repair, hysterectomy, or prostate surgery.
In one group, 21 people received traditional acupuncture while 21 in a control group didn’t receive acupuncture.
In a second group, 28 participants received battlefield acupuncture while 36 people in a control group didn’t receive acupuncture.
Researchers reported that the participants given traditional acupuncture were able to take three times fewer opiates after surgery than the control group.
Those who were given battlefield acupuncture were able to cut their postsurgical opiate needs to half of their control group.
Both groups reported less nausea and a better overall feeling after surgery compared to the control group.
Battlefield acupuncture was developed in 2001 by Air Force Dr. (Col.) Richard Niemtzow, who was looking to quickly reduce pain in the fast-paced world of deployment.
Battlefield acupuncture uses only the ear and only five needles. Since the ear, in acupuncture, represents the entire body, Niemtzow concluded it was a fast, easy way to relieve pain in the moment.
Using the technique on members of the general public who experience pain or are recovering from surgery is new.
“In the Department of Veteran Affairs, almost half of the 5.7 million veterans seen experience pain of some kind,” Dr. Padmavathi Patel, D.ABA, principal investigator of the study and section chief of anesthesia at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center, told Healthline.
With the increase in opiate addiction since 2000, Patel said, the Department of Defense is on a mission to find more nonpharmacological ways to help veterans fight pain.
Since battlefield acupuncture is linked to the military, she said, veterans were more open to trying it.
In this type of acupuncture, five tiny needles are used in one ear, so patients can sleep on the side without them.
Those needles stay in place for 3 to 5 days. For long-term pain, a person would return to have more needles inserted after original ones fall out.
Practitioners of acupuncture say they hope the technique catches on with other medical professionals, including surgeons.
“We have to move acupuncture away from ‘I might believe it’ to ‘I have to use it,’” Brad Whisnant, LAc., a doctor of Chinese medicine who sees thousands of patients at his Pinpoint Acupuncture Clinics in Oregon, told Healthline.
Whisnant, who has used acupuncture on surgical patients, said presurgery acupuncture can help with inflammation, swelling, and blood flow to “get the body ready” for surgery.
After surgery, he said, acupuncture can hone in on some pain pathways that modern medicine may not pick up on.
“I’ve seen using both cut down on recovery time by 50 percent,” he said.
The new study, he hopes, will open eyes to that.
“It’s a crying shame, but acupuncture has always been thought of as ‘placebo medicine,’” he said.
George McKelvey, PhD, a study co-author and a research associate at NorthStar Anesthesia at the Detroit Medical Center, told Healthline that the data is strong enough to show that the “placebo effect” probably is not a major contributor to the study’s results.
Dr. Michael D. Seidman, FACS, the director of otologic/neurotologic/skull base surgery at AdventHealth in Florida and a board member of the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, is a supporter of acupuncture as a preoperative and postoperative pain reducer.
Seidman said he’s been a believer in acupuncture’s effectiveness for a long time.
“This is obvious,” he told Healthline. “It’s been known for 5,000 years. We know for a fact that acupuncture relieves pain. We’re not fully sure why, but we know it works.”
In lectures, Seidman tells the story of a patient in lectures who was open to the idea of acupuncture and wanted to avoid pain medications as much as possible but also wanted as quick a recovery as possible.
Preoperative and postoperative acupuncture was used, and the patient recovered quickly and with minimal pain.
The name of that patient? Seidman himself.
He said he believes more surgeons will catch on to the practice.
When he was running the center, Seidman said, colleagues would joke that they “sent someone to your voodoo clinic,” but now, having seen results, more medical professionals are adding it to care choices.
“It’s the wave of the future that’s been around for 5,000 years,” Seidman said.
For the study authors, reaction has been positive for many reasons.
First, helping cut back on opiate needs may cut back on possible misuse.
“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,” Dr. Brinda Krish, DO, lead author of the study and an anesthesiology resident at the Detroit Medical Center, told Healthline. “We need multiple options for treating pain, and acupuncture is an excellent alternative. It is safe, cost effective and it works.”
Patel is now training third-year medical students in the technique, teaching them how to administer the acupuncture as well as why it works. Patel said she and her co-authors hope the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will share the study results and take action.
That, they hope, is just the beginning.
“This is less expensive, easy to place, has no side effects and does not impact insurance,” she said. “People are becoming more open to alternative treatments. Providers are showing passion and willingness (to adopt this). That’s our hope: that this becomes a well-known and used option.”