Patients in Pain: The Rise of Acupuncture in the Opioid Epidemic

Eana Meng


Many pain patients and patients in recovering from substance use disorders seek alternative methods of care, either because they feel isolated from the biomedical establishment or because current pain management approaches do not fully address their suffering. One particular alternative medicine that has become popular is acupuncture. With a long history in this nation, the practice is currently in its third wave of popularity and growing concurrently with the rise of the opioid epidemic. This paper explores the dynamic between biomedicine and acupuncture by focusing in on the patients’ stories of pain and how physicians and acupuncturists have responded to them. It looks at patient narratives and includes interviews from acupuncture schools to recovery centers. This paper is also historical in nature, by briefly looking at the previous rises of acupuncture in the United States, and delving deeper into the Community Acupuncture movement that began in the 1970s. Then, it looks at biomedicine’s response to these historical events, especially in light of the opioid crisis. Questions around therapeutic efficacy and evidence arise throughout, as the paper navigates through the worlds of biomedicine and alternatives. Ultimately, this paper wants the reader to ask themselves: what counts as medicine, and who gets to decide?