Every year thousands of Tennesseans lose their lives to opioids. More doctors are recommending safe alternatives to treat pain. 

There are viable options out there to get relief, but when patients see specialists for physical therapy or acupuncture, they often have to pay out of pocket because their insurance doesn’t cover it. The financial barrier is a struggle for many people and prescription drugs can be the cheaper option in some cases.

Data from the Tennessee Department of Health shows a decline in opioid prescriptions, but the number of deaths continues to spike. Last year 1,776 people died of a drug overdose in Tennessee. Of those deaths, nearly 1,300 were related to opioids.

A drug overdose left a painful void in Greg Russell’s family.

“He took them, quit breathing and it was too late,” said Greg Russell, from Maryville. “It was two years ago I lost a nephew to opioids.”

Russell knows pain all too well, in its many forms. 

“Had one knee replaced. Had two back surgeries. Shoulder surgery. I’ve been in a lot of pain,” said Russell. 

Russell had six surgeries over the span of eight years. Every time he recovered, Russell relied on painkillers his doctors prescribed. 

“I needed opioids to get through the night. I can see how they can be addictive,” said Russell.

Russell didn’t get addicted to the medicine, but he wanted to seek relief in a different way. He went to Pain Consultants of East Tennessee for help. Immediately, his back felt better after a steroid injection.

The Institute of Medicine says currently it is estimated that 116 million Americans live with chronic pain, which can severely limit a person’s quality of life and may interfere with the ability to perform daily activities and hobbies. 

“With a particular problem we have to figure out what’s going on. We really trying to focus on doing everything except opioids, leaving them as a last result,” said  Dr. James Choo, a pain physician at Pain Consultants of East Tennessee.  

While prescribed opioids are appropriate in some cases for patients, Dr. Choo says the medication needs to be used responsibly, under expert care. He adds that a patient can benefit from some modest amounts of painkillers, but opioids can mask the sensation of pain and that’s why doctors say it’s not always the best option for patients. There are alternative treatments like physical therapy and other methods that can be safer.

Dr. Choo said, “One of the most common reasons people come to see us is because of lower back pain. Sometimes leg pain as a result of a pinched nerve.”

Dr. Choo said choosing non-pharmaceutical treatments can eliminate the risk of misusing opioids and avoiding the potential negative side effects. However, it’s typical that these safer alternatives come with copays and deductibles, making it expensive. 

“Insurance may not cover those therapies. So unless you can afford to pay for those out of pocket, you don’t have equal access for folks,” said Karen Pershing, the executive director of Metro Drug Coalition.  

Pershing says that shouldn’t stop you from looking into your options.

“A prescription may be less expensive then say doing an acupuncture session or multiple chiropractic visits, but in the long run, we’ve been able to demonstrate through research that if people stay on opioids for a longer time, they end up costing us more,” Pershing said.

Metro Drug Coalition hopes to spark a conversation about changing coverage policies for people in pain to get the best care possible. 

Many providers already cover non-opioid pain management to some degree, but they often limit the duration of services. Some doctors are willing to set up payment plans for patients without insurance. 

As with all healthcare decisions, individuals with chronic pain should talk with their doctor to devise a pain management plan that’s safe, healthy, and effective for them.

    More: East Tennessee fights back against the opioid epidemic