Dr. Renee Haberl, vice president of the Arizona Association of Chiropractic board, with patient Erica Schmitt; photography by Angelina Aragon

Cracking the System

Written by Jackie Dishner Category: Valley News Issue: April 2018
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Proponents espouse chiropractic therapy as a promising solution for the opioid crisis.

The stress of working 16-hour days, seven days a week to protect foreign diplomats in the 1990s took its toll on Virginia Jablonski. The 51-year-old Prescott resident, then a fit 36-year-old living in Los Angeles, sought help for pain “that felt like my large bones were exploding from the inside out.” Arthritis, she guessed, but her doctor dismissed her as “Type A and burned out. [To relieve the pain] he wanted me on narcotics that first day.”

This typical response to pain has left the U.S. with an “opioid addiction crisis,” acknowledged last year by President Donald Trump, in need of a new prescription. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health says nearly 120 people die daily from overdose. In January, Governor Doug Ducey called a special legislative session to combat the epidemic, after he learned Arizona has had more than 800 overdose victims since last June.

Grim statistics aside, Jablonski’s is a rare opioid success story with a possible answer: chiropractic care.

For seven years, Jablonski resisted her doctor’s quick fix. But after countless false diagnoses and medications, nothing worked. When she could stand the pain no longer, her physician handed her a fentanyl lollipop, prescribing a time-release patch to stick on her body later. For five years, the patch fed her the powerful opiate “every hour on the hour, as if ... mainlining heroin,” she says. She became a bedridden addict with chronic pain and anxiety. “I lost my purpose in life.”

When she tried giving up the patch cold turkey in 2012, her heart gave out. The near-death experience woke her up. By 2015, she was sober, finding relief in spine adjustments, massage and hands-on chiropractic tools. It’s care she wishes she’d gotten from the beginning, but doctors don’t generally refer to chiropractors. Long chided by some as quackery, chiropractic care is now supported by growing evidence-based research (some funded by the National Institutes of Health).

Instead of drugs, Jablonski would rather see doctors push non-pharmacological treatments. She’s not alone. The Arizona Association of Chiropractic (AAC) is lobbying state legislators to pass the Access to AHCCCS bill that would encourage physician referral for chiropractic care through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Jablonski knows first-hand how opioids only mask the underlying problem. Hers: Lyme disease.

New guidelines published by the Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for non-pharmacological treatments first, including chiropractic care, and suggest five-day limits on opioid prescriptions. Arizona has adopted this in its new Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act, which Ducey signed into law in January.

“We need to take the next step,” says Barry M. Aarons of The Aarons Co., lobbying for the AAC. “Making sure chiropractic care is accessible to the nearly 2 million adult population on AHCCCS who can’t afford [it].”

Loss of motion, muscle tightness, aches – all are nerve-supply issues that a chiropractor can address, says Scottsdale chiropractor Dr. Margaret Powell, a former AAC member. “We need to ask: ‘Do you really need a pain reliever or anti-inflammatory to remove it?’ Maybe not.”

Chiropractors say they prescribe individual options – exercise, massage, nutrition. Without this, Aarons says, “You’re sentencing people to opioids.”

“There is no magic chiropractic opioid adjustment,” says Wayne Bennett, D.C., owner of Prescott’s Bennett Clinic, where Jablonski is treated, and chairman of AAC’s Access to AHCCCS task force. “We probably won’t get 100 percent of Arizonans off. But we know we can reduce the numbers... We see our patients making the decision to take less.”

ARIZONA OPIOID USE BY THE NUMBERS
In Arizona, opioid use, overdose and deaths are at an all-time high.

ARIZONA OPIOID USE BY THE NUMBERS

Source: Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act