The Community College of Rhode Island’s Rehabilitative Health programs recently hosted a Non-Opioid Pain Treatment Symposium, a two-part panel discussion addressing Rhode Island’s opioid crisis and presenting alternative non-opioid treatments to change the culture of pain management.
The symposium, held at the Knight Campus in Warwick, featured remarks from Tom Coderre, senior adviser to Gov. Gina Raimondo and co-chair of the Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, and U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin in addition to experts in the fields of acupuncture, physical therapy and psychiatry offering input on non-opioid methods for treating pain.
According to the governor’s website Prevent Overdose RI, more than 300 Rhode Islanders lost their lives to overdose, which is more than the number of people who died in car accidents, murders and suicides combined. Over the past six years, overdose deaths have increased by more than 90 percent.
Raimondo established the Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force in 2015 to reduce opioid overdose deaths in Rhode Island.
“All too often, we focus on the last use, after the person has already become addicted and after they have gone down that path and it’s most difficult to bring them back,” Coderre said. “What would happen if we focused on the first use? How would we be able to change the paradigm? What if there wasn’t even a first use because we considered non-opioid pain treatment therapies to be the standard instead of opioids being the standard?
“That’s the way it used to be,” he said. “At one time, before pharmaceutical relief, the standard of care was non-opioid therapies and at some point – because of the pharmaceutical industry, because of money – opioids are the standard of care and we call these other treatments ‘alternatives.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go back where opioids were the alternative? I think that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Laura Levine, mental health services coordinator at CODAC Behavioral Healthcare, presented examples of a patient prescribed methadone for chronic back pain and another prescribed a separate pain medication for injuries stemming from an automobile accident. The latter developed an addiction heroin, even after the treatment stopped.
“That is incredibly common,” Levine said. “The price [of heroin] is way cheaper.”
Non-opioid treatments such as acupuncture, massage therapy and occupational therapy, among others, are beneficial, Levine said, because they are not habit-forming and prevent patients from developing addictions to prescription drugs, or worse.
Eleanor Slater Hospital, a state-operated hospital that provides long-term acute and post-acute care to patients with complex medical and psychiatric needs, offers a pain solutions program for anyone who has been suffering from pain for more than six months, regardless of whether he or she is addicted to opioids. Doctors provide personality assessments in addition to therapeutic massages, acupuncture and chiropractic care and a stress-free environment for recovery.
“Acupuncture is about circulation; not just blood circulation, but the circulation of energy in the body,” said acupuncturist Charlotte King. “We think of anywhere where there’s dysfunction or pain, there is a blockage there, whether it be physical or some sort of energetic blockage, and we use our needles to move that blockage and smooth the dysfunction.
“We can treat so many different conditions with acupuncture just beyond pain. Another side effect of acupuncture is relaxation. People find the treatments really, really relaxing and sort of soothing and I think that’s an important aspect in a lot of alternative and complementary medicine. We live in a really stressful society and I think giving our patients time to relax and de-stress has tremendous therapeutic value.”
According to Prevent Overdose RI, the effort to reduce overdose deaths is working; after spiking to 336 in 2016, the numbers of deaths decreased to 323 a year ago and 203 in 2018, the lowest total in six years.
This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Langevin introduced to create a task force to combat opioid trafficking.
“Our legislative efforts have only just begun,” Langevin said. “This is going to be an ongoing effort. As this crisis unfolds, it’s increasingly apparent that Congress has to work together in a bipartisan way if we’re ever going to make a meaningful difference in the battle against opioid addiction and overdose. And I’m going to continue to advocate for more research into non-addictive treatments and therapies.”