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By Taylor Knopf

Legislative staff, lobbyists and others laid out in recliners in the legislative building lobby on Wednesday with needles sticking out of their heads, hands and feet.

Members of the North Carolina Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine came to the General Assembly building on Jones Street to demonstrate how acupuncture works and talk to lawmakers about how their skills could be useful in the fight against opioid abuse and overdose.

One staffer tried treatment for a foot he broke during a car accident a few years. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

State officials and medical professionals have been looking for ways to combat the increasing number of overdose deaths in North Carolina, which have climbed from 150 deaths in 1999 to 1,110 in 2015. A total of 11,072 North Carolinians died from opioid overdose during that time. North Carolina recently received a $31 million federal grant to help address the problem.

There are more than 450 licensed acupuncturists in North Carolina, according to NCAAOM. David Peters, NCAAOM president, said acupuncture can help prevent opioid addiction and help curb cravings for those already hooked on drugs.

For example, when a patient is brought out of surgery, the person is often given a painkiller or morphine drip.

“If we were there in the hospitals to administer acupuncture to people in post-operation, then they may not need those drugs or need less of them right from the start,” Peters said.

Acupuncture is used as a form of pain management in many settings, including cancer treatment centers. Research has shown it to be effective in many cases, but experts recommend more study for harder scientific evidence.

Acupuncturists are licensed to practice in North Carolina, but members of the profession have been fighting for more respect.

Peters said his group is also advocating for more insurance coverage. Some companies will not cover acupuncture at all. Even with good insurance plans, a patient needs a referral stating medical necessity from a physician and the number of treatment sessions is limited by the insurance company.

For treating addiction, Peters said there are specific treatment protocols in place to curb cravings and lower stress levels.

“So what it does is help us make our own painkillers and take us out of stress mode,” he explained. “When the sympathetic nervous system is turned on, you cannot go into healing mode.”

Acupuncture helps to turn off the body’s “fight or flight” mode and helps initiate that healing mode, Peters added.

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...