The reason most of us end up in an emergency department (ED) is because we’re in pain. In fact, up to 75% of us present to ED some level of pain.

Often, when a patient arrives in pain, he or she is given the most appropriate painkiller. This can vary from paracetamol and anti-inflammatories, to much more powerful opioids (such as morphine and Endone). They can be administered intravenously or orally.

Although these medications often do the job they are supposed to do, they can cause side effects and also be potentially harmful.

Professor Andrew Jan, Emergency Physician at St John of God Murdoch Hospital’s Private Emergency Department and a Medical Acupuncturist, is passionate about reducing the number of strong, potentially addictive painkillers we use to alleviate pain.

“These painkillers can be misused, cause a number of side effects and lead to addiction and even death,” Dr Jan says.

“Acupuncture can provide either a viable alternative to pharmaceutical pain relief or it can be used in conjunction with medications to effectively reduce or eliminate pain.”

Dr Jan and his colleagues have been exploring the effectiveness of acupuncture in the emergency department setting, particularly ear acupuncture, using a technique known as ‘Battlefield’ acupuncture.

“Battlefield acupuncture is used by the American military to relieve pain in the field and is popular with soldiers because they can stay in the field rather than having to be taken to a medical facility for monitoring with opioids.”

“We were particularly interested in whether ear acupuncture pain relief can have lasting or merely temporary effects,” Dr Jan says.

“What we wanted to know for our upcoming trial is how they are feeling in the first couple of hours after treatment. For some people the pain comes back, for others it is completely gone.”

Their research has shown that, either as stand-alone or as-an-adjunct technique, the administration of acupuncture significantly reduced pain scores and has potential benefits for use in the ED.

Professor Jan believes acupuncture is a perfect fit for emergency medicine due to its portable and non-obtrusive nature.

“If the patient is lying down you can treat them with ear acupuncture while everything else is going on. They can have their bloods taken and their observations done at the same time.”

Professor Jan is careful to emphasise that he does not suggest replacing all pain management with acupuncture.

“It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. But in our recent survey about 70% were willing to use it as an adjunct.

“If it is used in conjunction with other non-pharmacological techniques (with analgesics kept to a minimum), then there is potential for development of the whole person.”​

Jan AL, Aldridge ES, Rogers IR, Visser EJ, Bulsara MK, Niemtzow RC. Does ear acupuncture have a role for pain relief in the emergency setting? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Med Acupunct.  2017; 29(5): 276-289.

Jan AL, Aldridge ES, Rogers IR, Visser EJ, Bulsara MK, Hince D. Patient attitudes to standard analgesia care and their openness to non-pharmacological methods such as acupuncture in the ED. Emerg Med Australas. In Press.

What is acupuncture exactly?
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice. It has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years but has only been explored by Western medical practitioners in the last few decades. It involves inserting very fine needles into the body at designated pressure points. Modern practices also use semi-permanent needles, electroacupuncture, lasers and piezoelectic devices. There are also varying Western theories as to what makes acupuncture effective – theories range from the stimulation of nerve fibres, to the production of endorphins, to simply a response to human touch.

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