Acupuncture can reduce pain and opioid dependency after surgery

NEW YORK — Acupuncture during joint replacement surgery may be the key to avoiding pain and the need for powerful prescription painkillers, a new study reveals. Researchers at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York say two-thirds of the patients undergoing total knee replacement surgery were either opioid-free or only needed low-doses of painkillers if they had acupuncture for knee pain while under the knife.

“Total knee replacements are one of the most common operative procedures in the United States and often very painful, so there’s a great need to explore non-opioid pain relief techniques for this type of surgery,” says study lead author Stephanie Cheng, M.D., DABMA, assistant attending anesthesiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in a media release. “Acupuncture is extremely safe and can help reduce pain with few unwanted side effects, but it has not been well researched as part of surgical anesthesia.”

Researchers examined the post-surgery recoveries of 41 patients undergoing total knee replacement at HSS during this study. Each patient received electroacupuncture – a form of acupuncture which sends a small electric current to the thin needles practitioners insert into certain points on the body – during their knee operation.

Dr. Cheng, who is board-certified in medical acupuncture, applied these needles to eight points around each patient’s ears. The spots are all acupuncture points which provide pain relief in the knee.

Can acupuncture end the opioid epidemic?

Results show that in the 30 days following each surgery, 57.5 percent of the patients only needed a low-dose opioid regimen of 15 oxycodone pills or less to manage their post-surgical pain. Another 7.5 percent were completely opioid-free after their procedures. For comparison, study authors say just nine percent of patients who have knee replacement surgery without acupuncture are able to manage the pain without higher doses of opioids.

“Our study shows that if a trained medical acupuncturist is available to perform acupuncture in the operating room, it can help patients with postoperative pain recovery,” Dr. Cheng adds. “Most studies fail to incorporate nontraditional techniques, such as acupuncture, to help decrease the dependence on opioid medications for postoperative pain control.”

When it comes to America’s opioid crisis, study authors add that finding new ways to relieve pain without prescription drugs will be key to improving the long-term health of surgery patients. Acupuncture is not only an effective therapy for managing pain, Dr. Cheng notes that it also helps to treat a range of health issues and symptoms.

Researchers presented their findings at the ANESTHESIOLOGY® 2021 annual meeting.

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