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Acupuncture's popularity: a call for more than pain relief

Acupuncture is gaining popularity in the U.S., and two modern epidemics have created this opportunity. The first is a pain epidemic. Nearly 100 million Americans struggle with chronic pain, according to a Johns Hopkins University estimate.

The second epidemic is opioids, the painkilling drugs (legal and illegal) that caused 446,032 Americans to overdose and die between 1999 and 2018. Imagine if a 9/11 sized tragedy happened every year for the last twenty years; not just one day a year, but eight times a year... for twenty years. That's how many people have died from opioid overdose. No planes. No buildings. Just pills and product.

As evidence mounts on the addictive nature and destructive capacity of opioid pain medications, politicians and medical professionals have been desperate to find new ways to safely relieve pain.

Enter acupuncture.

Actually, acupuncture is anything but new. It has been around a LONG time - at least 2000 years - and the medical system surrounding acupuncture (which we could call "Balance Medicine") started somewhere around 5000 years ago. It's old. Old-world wisdom.

This is a radical idea when you think about it. Western policy makers struggled for years to erase all the old "folk-healing" practices from modern medicine. Many are changing their minds now about acupuncture, which is, at minimum, a testament to how effective it can be at treating pain.

But if you listen closely to the average patient (not her doctor) talk about why she'd like to try acupuncture, you hear a call for more than just pain relief.

Modern ideas about health are failing her, and yet the modern world demands more of her time, energy, and attention with each passing day. For a while, she thought it was sustainable. Now she's not so sure.

Here's one way we could look at the situation:

There are a small number of studies that suggest that the human body may be optimized for a different age - when there wasn't so much technology, processed food, worry, and stress; and so little physical activity. This could be any time before the industrial revolution and the last two centuries. These particular studies focus on a period about 4000 years ago.

That's roughly the beginning of the bronze age and the shift from a hunter gatherer society to an agricultural one where people grew much of their own food. The current iteration of human beings (you and me and the ancestors we are most genetically like) lived a long time in hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies. We're highly adapted to those environments. The same probably can't be said of our level of adaptation to our current environment, in which we've only spent a couple hundred years.

We may be optimized for the old world.

So should we throw out technology and restore that world? There are a few good reasons why we shouldn't do that, and many, many reasons why we won't. But that's another story. What we need to do now is borrow some life-rules from the old world to help us thrive in the new.

There were many health-wisdom traditions alive during the period in question, though most were not written down or preserved. One of the more convenient facts about Balance Medicine is that a good bit of it was documented and transmitted. It comes from that period. In fact, it was forming its foundation about 4000 years ago and has been maturing ever since.

In the U.S., folks are just discovering acupuncture's medicine, but it's been with us a long time, a full chalice of human optimization strategies. And now it's tipping.


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