Sacramento, CA - Although long derided as pseudoscience and still questioned by many medical experts, acupuncture is increasingly being embraced by patients and doctors, sometimes as an alternative to the powerful painkillers behind the nation's opioid crisis.
The military and Veterans Affairs medical system has been offering acupuncture for pain for several years, some insurance companies cover it and now a small but growing number of Medicaid programs in states hit hard by opioid overdoses have started providing it for low-income patients. Ohio's Medicaid program recently expanded its coverage after an opioid task force urged state officials to explore alternative pain therapies.
While there's now been a lot of research on acupuncture for different types of pain, the quality of the studies has been mixed, and so have the results. Federal research evaluators say there's some good evidence acupuncture can help some patients manage some forms of pain. But they also have described the benefits of acupuncture as modest, and say more research is needed.
While research continues, insurance coverage of acupuncture keeps expanding. California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island pay for acupuncture for pain through their Medicaid insurance programs. Massachusetts and Oregon also cover acupuncture as a treatment for substance abuse, though scientists question how well it reduces the cravings caused by chemical dependency.
The California Medical Treatment Utilization Schedule for workers' compensation treatment contains an acupuncture section, and acupuncture is appropriate treatment in some circumstances.
The largest federal government insurance program, Medicare, does not pay for acupuncture. Tricare, the insurance program for active duty and retired military personnel and their families, does not pay for it either. But VA facilities offer it, charging no more than a copay.
Acupuncture has been practiced in China for thousands of years, and customarily involves inserting thin metal needles into specific points in the ears or other parts the body. Practitioners say needles applied at just the right spots can restore the flow of a mystical energy - called "qi" (pronounced CHEE) — through the body, and that can spur natural healing and pain relief.
In government surveys, 1 in 67 U.S. adults say they get acupuncture every year, up from 1 in 91 a decade earlier. That growth has taken place even though most patients pay for it themselves: 2012 figures show only a quarter of adults getting acupuncture had insurance covering the cost.
About a decade ago, the military and Veteran Affairs began promoting a range of alternative approaches to pain treatment, including acupuncture, yoga, and chiropractic care.
Now two-thirds of military hospitals and other treatment centers offer acupuncture, according to a recent study.
The military's openness to alternatives is "because the need is so great there," said Emmeline Edwards of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a federal scientific research agency. "Perhaps some of the approaches have been used without a strong evidence base. They're more willing to try an approach and see if it works."
Her agency is teaming up the Pentagon and the VA to spend $81 million on research projects to study the effectiveness of a variety of nondrug approaches to treating chronic pain. Read More...