I feel the need to share and comment on an article I read a couple of weeks ago about a startling statistic. The New York Times published a piece (see link below) that discussed the disturbing results of research conducted by two economists (Angus Deaton and Anne Case) on mortality rates. They discovered that the death rates of middle-aged Caucasian Americans (aged 45-54), specifically those without college educations, had significantly increased from 1999 to 2014. Evidently, the cause of this higher incidence of death was largely due to suicide and to complications from alcoholism or drug addiction. This brings up a number of complex issues, most obviously the socioeconomic reasons why people in this demographic have been feeling hopeless and turning to suicide or using substances to handle their troubles. People are speculating about things like recent economic downturn, unemployment, age discrimination and poor health as sources of distress for these folks. However, the data also show that many of these deceased had suffered from chronic pain. The next question then becomes why are less educated white people experiencing so much chronic pain? (White patients are apparently prescribed painkillers much more frequently by doctors than African-American patients, which is yet another conundrum, although this actually helps prevent more addiction/dependency on prescription drugs in the African-American population.) Do whites in this demographic have less access to healthcare than educated whites and other groups? Is this category of people unaware of all the options available for the treatment of chronic pain? The mortality rate for middle-aged Hispanics is much lower, and while for African Americans it is overall higher, their rate has decreased significantly in recent years, the study shows. So, these new statistics on mortality rates are quite a surprise.
The experience of pain is not only physically exhausting and stressful, but it disrupts quality of life and can lead to depression and anxiety. People with poorly managed pain often turn to painkillers and other substances or alcohol to numb their experience, which sadly may lead to addiction. The tragedy of these results is clear: at least a portion of these deaths was preventable- whether through alternative pain management methods and addiction treatments, and/or through health care options. I have seen far too many people uninformed about how to manage their pain and too quickly prescribed heavy doses of painkillers that do not address their underlying problem. And let me be clear: I believe prescription painkillers are a godsend when used properly because they end suffering. However, I do not think they should be prescribed so readily and I feel that patients should be closely monitored when prescribed such potentially addictive drugs.
As an acupuncturist, most of my clientele are those who suffer from some type of pain. While acupuncture and Chinese medicine can effectively treat other issues such as infertility, digestive disorders and allergies, for example, the public generally associates it with pain management. The fine needles can penetrate joints and loosen tight muscles and stimulate healing. Acupuncture needles release endorphins and reduce inflammation while increasing blood flow, which is, from a western point of view, why it works so well for pain sufferers. Another issue acupuncture can alleviate is the withdrawal symptoms from addictions. It is often used (not necessarily exclusively) in detox clinics to ameliorate cravings and subdue the angst and physical discomforts that accompany the weaning process. In fact, Lincoln Hospital here in New York has developed a specific protocol for drug detoxification that is now a tried and true method used worldwide for this purpose.
While I have helped many, many patients with chronic pain, I am not touting acupuncture and Chinese medicine as the be-all and end-all solution to this problem. But this study clearly highlights a very serious and tragic problem: this demographic is being underserved in so many ways- and the legislation about healthcare and what should be offered to people needs to be expanded. In the last two years, acupuncture coverage for many health plans has been altogether cut or reduced, and for patients with low incomes, access to alternative options is limited. Prescription painkillers and self-medication with drugs and alcohol are the sad consequence of a struggling economy and a poorly conceived healthcare system and this demographic is suffering for it.