The prescription of opioid drugs by GPs in England is steadily rising, especially in more deprived communities, even though they are potentially dangerous and do not work for chronic pain, a new study reveals.’  

This is the start of an article that appeared in The Guardian in March (a link to the full article is below) referencing a study appearing in the British Journal of General Practice.  Whilst we do not face the opioid epidemic that the US is experiencing, opioid prescriptions in the UK rose by 80% to 23.8 million in the 10 years to 2017, with 90% of opioids being prescribed for chronic, non-cancer pain.  This is a huge jump given that the medical community itself acknowledges opioids’ lack of effectiveness in treating the symptoms for which they are prescribed.

Overlay onto these statistics the often negative but sometimes devastating effect that opioids can having on the patient – ranging from the common side effects of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, confusion, dizziness, to long term addiction and death – and the picture is disturbing.  The Evening Standard ran a report into opioids in the UK in March which I’ve attached below; it’s a long but eye-opening piece, definitely worth a read.

So why are opioids prescribed?  And why is their usage growing so rapidly?  The answer lies partly in the fact that, with a lack of western medical alternative, GP’s feel it would be unethical to withhold their prescription from their patients, the study claims.  Compounding this, the incidence of chronic pain in the UK is also on the rise.

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal in June 2016 (see the link below for the article), somewhere between 35% and 51% of the UK adult population lives with chronic pain.  This is a headline grabbing statistic. But what does the term ‘chronic pain’ mean exactly?

For the purposes of the review cited above, chronic pain was defined as pain lasting more than 3 months and encompasses fibromyalgia (a rheumatic condition characterised by muscular or musculoskeletal pain), or chronic neuropathic pain (pain caused by nerve signalling problems).  It may be caused by an injury or trauma or it may be something that you have gradually become aware of over many months. It is most likely to affect backs, knees, elbows, shoulders and necks but can arise anywhere.  It can differ in intensity and from mild to moderate or severe. In plain English, if you have been living with persistent pain for three months, you are deemed to be suffering from ‘chronic pain’.

Older people are more likely to live with chronic pain, thus it is safe to assume that as the population ages, so the incidence of chronic pain will increase.  Women across all age groups are more likely to suffer from it than men.

As well as the challenge of living with long term pain, the repercussions are widespread and may include lack of mobility and consequent weight gain, loss of self-confidence and depression.  It’s possible to chart how an ailment which begins as something very physical soon becomes a mental health issue too.

In western terms, the gold standard of chronic pain management is found in a multi-disciplinary approach to the problem with a specialist consultant, nurse, physiotherapist and psychologist working together.  Such an approach is rare.

So, can acupuncture help to alleviate the symptoms of chronic pain?  According to Dr Cathy Stannard who chairs Opioids Aware (a set of guidelines published by the UK’s leading pain experts) “Chronic pain is difficult to treat and it might be about helping people improve their quality of life.  Alternative therapies such as …. Acupuncture may have more benefits than medical treatments.”

The NHS also recommends the use of acupuncture as a means of managing chronic pain

Unlike opioids, negative side effects from acupuncture are extremely rare.  It has been shown to stimulate areas of the brain that are known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress as well as promoting relaxation (Wu 1999).  

I attach the Fact Sheet provided by the British Acupuncture Council below; it gives more information about the research into how it is believed acupuncture can help alleviate the symptoms of chronic pain. 

I treat patients with chronic pain regularly and am convinced that acupuncture is a more attractive alternative to a long-term addiction to ineffective opioid medication!  Please give me a call if you’d like to chat about whether it may help you. I’m always happy to have a telephone consultation with you before you decide whether to book in for treatment.