Psychiatrist Anna Lembke thinks America has a pain problem — and human connection may be our way out.
Lembke, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, has spent years researching addiction and its effects. As America’s opioid problem ballooned into a full-blown public health crisis in 2011, she traced it back to a deeper cause: our unwillingness to endure pain, and doctors’ sudden willingness to eliminate it at all costs.
Lembke takes a “harm-reduction” approach to her patients, seeking holistic or alternative solutions for healing. This may include therapy, support groups, spiritual practices, exercise, and ultimately, fewer drugs. One goal of harm reduction is to decrease the potential physical dangers associated with certain drugs by empowering the body to do what it was designed to do. That’s where human bonding comes in.
Connection and addiction are inherently linked, Lembke says — that’s a big reason why support groups can be so effective for recovery. “When people are isolated, they’re at higher risk to become addicted as a replacement attachment, and when people become addicted, they pull away from others and isolate themselves,” she tells Brit + Co. “So finding ways to create human bonding and encourage human attachment can be an antidote and treatment. That’s essentially how self-help groups work.”
Instead of using drugs, users go to face-to-face meetings, forming bonds. These social and emotional connections support the release of the body’s natural opioids, endorphins, along with feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. The release of these hormones can profoundly support addicted people experiencing withdrawal, essentially mimicking opioid activity and reclaiming the brain’s reward center. Physical intimacy is widely known to release these same chemicals — that’s why hospitals around the country have recently introduced “baby cuddling” programs into their neonatal units to support withdrawing babies born to mothers who used opioids.
While babies born to opioid-addicted parents aren’t technically addicted themselves — Lembke says they’re physiologically dependent on a molecule their mothers introduced to them — they experience similarly intolerable withdrawal symptoms, including constant, high-pitched cries, irritability, tremors, and stiff limbs, all of which are exacerbated by difficulty sleeping and feeding.
Like addicted adults, babies born to drug users experience profound physical pain — a kind of pain that Lembke tells Brit + Co that many people would rather die than experience. And because medications like methadone have been shown to make recovery bearable for addicted individuals, hospitals have historically treated withdrawing newborns the same way. Only recently have researchers begun to look for a more effective way of treating them, and they’re finding that physical touch could be just as powerful as medicine.
With the recent proliferation of opioid abuse in America, infant withdrawal, known as Newborn Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), is becoming more and more common. The most recent federal data tells us that in 2012, more than 22,000 babies were born dependent on drugs, a number that’s surely increased alongside the opioid crisis. NAS, like opioid abuse, is particularly rampant in certain parts of the country. In one West Virginia hospital, National Geographic reports that one in five newborns was exposed to opioids in the womb. NAS has become so common in this hospital that its neonatal unit frequently has to turn away babies with other physical issues.
Use of methadone and other drugs like buphrenophine to ease NAS symptoms has been generally effective, but it’s not without consequences. Withdrawing babies treated with medication typically take more time to recover, occupying valuable hospital real estate and exhausting staff resources. In addition, treating babies with medicine heaps considerable expenses on recovering parents; some NAS babies’ hospital stays cost up to $70,000.
For these reasons, hospitals are challenging the traditional treatment approach, primarily by integrating more physical contact with NAS babies through an infant cuddling program and other mother/child bonding measures. For example, women at the Boston Medical Center usually “room in” with their babies and are encouraged to breastfeed and hold their babies skin to skin.
Beyond bonding with their mothers, babies are also frequently cradled by medical students and other hospital employees, who log two-hour shifts as baby cuddlers. Currently, according to National Geographic, the waiting list to cuddle NAS babies at Boston Medical Center, alone, is 200 names long.
So far, the method appears successful. Before researchers began looking for new ways to deal with NAS, 86 percent of babies at Boston Medical Center received medicine of some kind. Now, the rate is down to 30 percent, and families’ expenses have come down along with it: The average cost for an NAS baby’s stay is now only $19,655, about a third of national averages. Along the same lines, an infant cuddle program in Winchester, Virginia cut a NAS baby’s hospital stay nearly in half, from 40 days to 21, according to TODAY.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss baby-cuddling programs as idealistic at best, but in this case, both the results and science actually back up cuddle initiatives. Cradling and other forms of physical touch release endorphins, the body’s natural opioids. Because physical bonding encourages natural opioid production, it can drastically help reduce symptoms of NAS.
Still, Lembke says the use of cuddling to promote the health of NAS babies isn’t an either/or endeavor; there’s still a place for medicine, especially in more serious cases.
“You can give [babies] exogenous opioids and then slowly step down the dose as a way to help their withdrawal, or you can engage in some behavior to encourage their own opioid production, which appears to be what’s happening when they are being held and cradled,” she says.
While cuddling programs are in place specifically to help withdrawing babies recover, Lembke is encouraged by such initiatives, as they shed a broad light on the importance of connection with regard to addiction. Though it would take a lot of work — in her words, “a drastic overhaul of the American healthcare delivery system — she believes integrating physical touch into medical care could play a role in preventing and treating adult addiction.
“It’s heartening to hear people are experimenting with these types of interventions with babies,” she says. “Physical touch could work wonders for adults who are addicted.”
Would you volunteer at a hospital’s baby-cuddling program? Tell us @BritandCo.