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The opioid crisis: a turning point for acupuncture in the UK or just the US?

We reported here in January on the new initiatives in some US states to pilot acupuncture services for Medicaid recipients, largely for chronic pain and largely prompted by the need to offer alternatives to the problematic opioid drugs. There is sound research evidence to support such a role for acupuncture (
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In February 2018 these developments made the news on two national TV stations in the US. Here’s the link to CBS’s coverage, which focused particularly on acupuncture use by the military. Around two-thirds of military hospitals and other treatment centres offer acupuncture, as well as the Dept of Veterans Affairs and some private health insurers. The CBS report also highlighted that there are strong sceptical voices amongst the medical scientists but, nevertheless, there seems to be more willingness to look at acupuncture as a possible mainstream option in America than in the UK.

Perhaps the opioid ‘timebomb’, as the London Evening Standard billed it, will change things here too. In their current multi-part feature the newspaper quoted both an expert doctor and an expert psychologist as recommending acupuncture (Evening Standard 16 March 2018). They had been asked what patients are meant to do instead of take opioids. These drugs not only cost the NHS many millions in direct and indirect costs they are also hopelessly ineffective for chronic pain (see for example NICE’s 2016 low back pain guideline). Acupuncture is a much better bet, both for benefits and harms, but it remains to be seen whether there is enough political will for the NHS to take it seriously.

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