Bailey Helgeson was in treatment for heroin addiction when she first encountered acupuncture.
Well before her addiction took hold in 2014, Helgeson had been dealing with hip pain. Doctors tried all sorts of remedies, but none of them worked.
Then, while at an addiction treatment facility in North Carolina, Helgeson began a different regimen to deal with pain, one that has been practiced for thousands of years.
“Really, I would do commercials for acupuncture,” Helgeson, 37, said. “It worked so well I thought it was a fluke.”
As the opioid epidemic rages, an increasing number of patients are seeking alternatives to painkillers, which physicians are less inclined to prescribe these days. Some who are already addicted to opioids are trying to treat pain while others are also turning to acupuncture to treat symptoms of opioid withdrawal itself.
A couple years ago, Roanoke acupuncturist Katie Clifton took her practice to the streets.
“I have always struggled with how acupuncture is really, you know, it’s a cash practice,” she said. “So it's really for middle class, mainly upper middle classes who it's available too, and so I've tried different ways to make it affordable for everyone.”
In a fuschia-pink school bus named Sue, Queenpin Family Wellness travels around the city providing free 20-minute sessions of acupuncture called the five-point protocol.
Practitioners stick five tiny needles into each ear. The treatment emerged in the 1970s in New York City as a way to treat heroin addiction. After a 1972 visit to China, members of the Black Panther Party brought the practice to a South Bronx detox clinic.
“It's been used in various ways and in grassroots movements to help people not only with addiction, but to help recover from trauma and PTSD and things like that,” Clifton said.
The mobile clinic’s monthly trips, called the Wellness Rodeo, rotates among three locations: Child Health Investment Partnership (CHIP) of Roanoke Valley, the housing authority’s EnVision Center in Northwest and Jamestown Place, a public housing complex in Southeast.
Queenpin’s clinic partners with nonprofits like the Bradley Free Clinic, Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, Feeding Southwest Virginia and others to provide services in a single place.
Since the rodeos are free, Clifton relies on donations from her private practice patients to keep the wagon afloat; a fundraiser at 5 Points Music Sanctuary is also planned for Saturday, April 8.
Mike Holcomb, the Wellness Wagon coordinator, said he tries to make the rodeos have “a very fair-like environment, so very light-hearted, lots of fun,” since they are often reaching people who are “low income as well as people who are basically in survival mode because of substance use disorder.”
The acupuncture sessions introduce people to the practice and provide a few minutes of relaxation. Hot tea is always on hand.
“You just see people feel that ability to calm down. It’s a very interesting thing,” Holcomb said. “We call it ‘acu-stoned,’ where people get in such a relaxed state.”
The treatment calms the central nervous system. Some patients even fall asleep.
“The way I explain it is, you're running on adrenaline and when you get this moment of calm and peace … your central nervous system is getting calmer, your cortisol levels are lowering all of that adrenaline that you've been running on catches up to you,” Holcomb said.
Helgeson discovered Queenpin after she left the North Carolina addiction treatment center in late 2019 and was living at Smith Mountain Lake. She now sees Clifton roughly every six weeks for pain management.
“I drove an hour just to see her for almost a year, and I actually moved to Roanoke because it was helping so much,” Helgeson said.
Helgeson, who lives in downtown Roanoke, works as the peer recovery coordinator at the Collective Response of the Roanoke Valley, a coalition aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic.
She sees the Wellness Rodeos as another community resource addressing the crisis.
“Pain was always the thing that took me back,” to using heroin, Helgeson said. “I think it's really scary that when you enter recovery, especially if it's abstinence-based like my recovery, it's really concerning, like, ‘Well, what do I do if I do have pain? You know, is Tylenol going to cut it?’ And it has, for over three years. And I know that’s because of acupuncture.”
Other acupuncturists in the Roanoke area have found similar interest from patients trying to avoid painkillers.
“I do see many patients for pain, and many do say they come in specifically in order to not have to take pharmaceutical painkillers,” Taylor Nelson of Clear Light Acupuncture in Roanoke County said in an email. “I can say that more insurance companies, especially where opioids have been very abused such as Tennessee, have started covering acupuncture for pain with the stated goal of reducing opiate use.”
Alexander Davis has run an acupuncture center in Grandin Village for nearly 20 years.
He has noticed a gradual shift in awareness of and support for acupuncture since the first lawsuit against the makers of OxyContin in 2007. By 2015, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ramped up outsourcing of pain management to acupuncturists and chiropractors, Davis said.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military developed its own “battlefield acupuncture” to treat the pain of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Then in January of 2020, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that Medicare would cover acupuncture for patients with lower back pain.
“CMS is keenly focused on fighting the opioids epidemic including by supporting access to pain management using a safe and effective range of treatment options that rely less on prescription opioids, including non-pharmacological approaches,” the agency said in a statement at the time.
Davis said that move opened up the floodgates.
“That was a switch that caught everybody off guard,” he said. “We thought it’d be five years and another 10 years for it to be implemented.”
A decade ago, 10 percent of Davis’s patients were referred by the Salem Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Now it’s about half, he said.
“I’ve doubled my patient load per week, I’d say in the last five years,” Davis said.
And patients are seeing Davis with more diverse complaints. In addition to lower back pain, he is seeing more people with neck pain, migraines, insomnia, fibromyalgia and digestive issues.
“It’s kind of funny but the big government agencies are actually in a way leading the cause in the United States,” Davis said. “You know, these guys are not New Age hippie people, looking for chakras and crystals and stuff. And not that acupuncture does any of that. It’s very practical medicine.”
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