The medical profession might be waking up to the potential of holistic therapies like massage and others to serve as an alternative to opioid use for pain

The medical profession might be waking up to the potential of such holistic therapies as massage, chiropractic, yoga, acupuncture and others to serve as an alternative to opioid use for pain, based on the announcement of research to compare such therapies to prescription drugs.

In the U.S., opioid addiction and overdose deaths, and similar outcomes related to heroin, have both reached epidemic proportions, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

More than 30,000 Americans died from opioid drugs in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and a compilation of information from leading public health experts indicates that up to 650,000 Americans could die from opioid addiction over the next decade.

“That’s almost as many Americans as will die from breast cancer and prostate cancer during that time period,” noted the expert panel report from STAT, which reported the experts’ input. “Put another way, opioids could kill nearly as many Americans in a decade as HIV/AIDS has killed since that epidemic began in the early 1980s.”

Holistic Therapies Research

On Aug. 15, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), an independent nonprofit organization, announced it has allocated $5.7 million to fund a study of access to holistic therapies for treating low back pain, including massage, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic, yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise therapy, and physical or occupational therapy—while restricting access to opioids, according to a press release.

“We clearly need more evidence-based information about how to better treat pain as a central component to the efforts to address our nation’s opioid crisis,” said PCORI executive director Joe Selby, M.D., M.P.H.

“The studies PCORI is funding in this area are addressing questions about the comparative effectiveness of strategies to reduce unsafe prescribing, manage long term opioid therapy, and prevent and treat opioid use disorders—questions that patients and other health care stakeholders have told us are most important to them,” he added.

MASSAGE Magazine spoke with Massage Therapy Foundation President Jerrilyn Cambron, L.M.T., D.C., M.P.H., Ph.D., about the significance of this study.

“I am happy that the medical profession is starting to focus on nonpharmacological forms of treatment for patients with low back pain,” Cambron said. “There is an extensive amount of research that demonstrates the benefits of massage therapy for pain relief. Collaboration between the health care professions regarding treatment of pain can lead to more patient choices and possibly better treatment outcomes.”

The new holistic therapies study is based at the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute, a division of Kaiser Permanente, and “will take the form of a ‘natural experiment,’ comparing outcomes in patients with low back pain who are enrolled in the Oregon Medicaid program, which provides access to substantially expanded options for nondrug treatments, to similar patients in California’s Medicaid program, which offers access to only conventional low back pain treatments and services, the release noted.

The study’s projected end date is July 2020.

The study, titled “A Naturalistic Experiment Evaluating the Impact of Medicaid Treatment Reimbursement Changes on Opioid Prescribing and Patient Outcomes Among Patients with Low Back Pain,” is just one funded by PCORI, which has approved $150 million in funding for 50 comparative clinical effectiveness research projects related to opioid misuse and pain treatment.