Emergency Room Patients are Choosing Acupuncture Instead of Painkillers at Minneapolis Hospital

Overdoses from painkillers and heroin are just about as deadly as car crashes in Minnesota.

Last year, 336 deaths were linked to the use of opioids or heroin.  In contrast, 411 people died in crashes.  Fatal facts like that drove a Minneapolis hospital to find another way to tame the pain.

Abbott Northwestern is the first hospital in not only Minnesota, but the country, to offer acupuncture in the emergency room.

Chris Tanita of Minneapolis took advantage of that one day in April.

“I had the most intense pain on the side of my throat and neck,” Tanita said.

Tanita couldn’t swallow or sleep and couldn’t take the pain anymore.  Anxious and afraid, she came to the emergency room at Abbott Northwestern for relief.

“I want pain medicine for the fever,” she said.

She wanted something to numb her suffering.  What she got was an option from Acupuncturist Adam Reinstein.

“I talked to your doctor and he wants me to see if you want acupuncture to make you more comfortable,” he said.

Instead of getting a pill, she got poked.  Reinstein inserted the tiny, thin needles in certain spots. Needles can be inserted in places such as the hands, arms and ears to stimulate nerves, muscles and tissues.

“I am triggering their bodies own natural healing ability to produce their own painkiller’s endorphins, they may help release them,” according to Reinstein.

Within 30 minutes, Tanita felt the flare-ups fade, her fever go down and her throat relax.

“I literally couldn’t talk three and a half hours ago,” she said.

At this hospital, in the heart of the city, emergency room doctors treat almost 50,000 patients a year according to Dr. Christopher Obetz.

“It’s a place where people are first exposed to painkillers and a place where people who already have addictions will come to acquire additional pain medications,” Obetz said.

Abbott Northwestern’s research points out 49 percent of people who come to the ER either receive painkillers as part of their treatment or get a prescription for them when leaving.  A national study shows 15 percent of the patients who are naïve to painkillers and exposed to them for the first time in the ER become addicted within six to nine months.

That led Abbott Northwestern to launch a first-of-its-kind study to determine whether acupuncture is effective when used in addition to, or instead of, painkillers.

Jeffery Dusek is the lead researcher at the hospital’s Penny George Institute of Health & Healing.

“I think we’re at the point where patients aren’t so concerned about what’s going to reduce the pain as long as something can reduce the pain and if acupuncture can do it, they’re in for it,” Dusek said.

Adam Reinstein checks the patient board, talks with doctors and makes the rounds, looking for someone seeking pain relief.  Since the study started in 2013, a majority, 89 percent of 850 patients have been willing to give acupuncture a shot.  In 2013, 99 did.  That number more than tripled in 2014 to 371, then scaled back to 245 in 2015.  Dusek noticed something important, “we’re seeing less use of opioid’s in the ER when they’re receiving acupuncture.”

Dusek says 20 percent less, saving the hospital a lot of money.  What’s more, some patients leave the ER without a prescription at all.

Yet, Dr. Stephen Barrett openly questions the value of acupuncture.

“The scientific consensus is acupuncture is not particularly effective for pain, it’s not better than a placebo: Barrett said.

Barrett practiced medicine for 35 years and runs a number of consumer health websites, including Acuwatch.org, where he refers to acupuncture as needles with nonsense.

“Listen, I don’t believe in ghosts either and that’s the equivalent of a ghost in your body,” he added.

Yet, folks at Abbott Northwestern believe the benefits are very real.  The idea is to stick it to pain by combining Eastern remedies along with Western medicine.  5 EYEWITNESS NEWS was there as Jack Weston, of Edina, was being released from the hospital.  He wanted us to know he’s tried both, and prefers one over the other.

“I would stay with the medicine if push came to shove, because I think it’s likely more effective in the long run,” he said.

However, staff at Abbott Northwestern believe acupuncture in the ER could reduce not only throbbing aches, but the use of painkillers and the number of prescriptions doctor’s write, benefiting folks inside the hospital and even more outside of it.

“I think it’s more societal costs if we could avoid people being dependent on opioids and all the consequent increases of hospitalizations and readmissions after that, I think that’s where the benefit is,” Dusek said.

As for Tanita, she’s just as afraid of addictive meds as she is the pain itself.

“At least for me and how I want to live, I prefer to not take pills, you know the less foreign weird stuff in my body the better,” Tanita said.

Tanita says part of what she liked about the program was she got to choose whether she wanted to take part.

Acupuncture in the ER can be a one-time fix, or it can become ongoing treatment.  When a patient leaves, they can get a referral to the Penny George Institute, it’s an outpatient clinic, or folks can go to any of the 584 licensed acupuncturists in the state.

The pilot program lasts another year.  The hospital is applying for a federal grant to continue and expand the study.