Why insurers should cover acupuncture: It works


Anyone who knows me well knows I have a frequent refrain when discussing health problems: "Acupuncture can fix it!" Like the Windex solution from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I believe acupuncture is the answer to almost any health issue.

I can personally attest to acupuncture's healing ability for several health problems and could happily go on at length about its wonderful side effects, including better sleep, calmer disposition and relaxed muscles. (Have you ever even heard of positive side effects related to any other medical treatment?)

So it's no wonder I rejoiced at the recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that concluded acupuncture actually works. For back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as chronic headaches and osteoarthritis, the study found it's better to receive acupuncture treatment than no treatment at all and, here's the kicker, better than "sham" acupuncture.

And this is no short-term study. This effort involved researchers around the world reviewing all previous studies conducted on acupuncture. It took six years to complete the meta-analysis comparing acupuncture with typical Western medicine-type care and sham acupuncture treatments. The result? About 50 percent of all patients treated with acupuncture said their medical problem improved, while only 30 percent of patients who didn't receive acupuncture said their problem improved.

In fact, lead author Andrew Vickers said "there's firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain."

And now to my plea, er, point: Health insurers should provide more comprehensive coverage of acupuncture and, for that matter, other alternative treatments (but that's another topic for another column). If acupuncture can help reduce chronic pain, as this study proves, it actually would benefit insurers to cover the ancient Chinese treatment and, dare I say, promote its use.

Study after study has demonstrated that preventive medicine, in which you could easily categorize acupuncture, helps lower costs by avoiding unnecessary care down the road. Acupuncture approaches health and well-being from a holistic standpoint, so it doesn't only solve one health problem; it addresses many health issues simultaneously. That's why it can be both a care treatment and preventive step. By seeking acupuncture for one problem, you're unwittingly avoiding future problems.

My own experience with acupuncture is a classic example of the wide-reaching advantages. After visiting my acupuncturist for help with chronic knee pain, I unexpectedly also began sleeping better, eating more healthfully and feeling generally more relaxed throughout the days. An acupuncture session is akin to a full body message because as you lay on the table with the needles in place, any muscle tension dissipates and you begin to feel a Zen-like calm.

And I haven't even mentioned the incredible burden that dealing with chronic pain has on the insurance industry's bottom line. According to a study published in the Journal of Pain, chronic pain costs up to $635 billion a year--that's more than cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined. And those are "conservative" conclusions, the study authors said.

If insurers could dovetail these studies, they would see one huge problem in chronic pain and one very achievable solution in acupuncture. The final portion of this healthcare equation is insurance coverage. Given the exorbitant costs of chronic care for which acupuncture has been proven to successfully treat, insurers could actually save money by covering the age-old medical treatment. - Dina (@HealthPayer)