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With all the worry about pain medications and addiction, it's no wonder Americans are increasingly trying alternative medicine like acupuncture to alleviate their discomfort.
There is some doubt that the ancient practice is a placebo effect — it works because people believe it does. But there are scientific studies showing acupuncture can soothe back and knee pain, quiet migraines and ease cancer-related pains — without any disturbing side effects.
“There’s even been research on certain non-pain conditions, such as post-chemotherapy nausea,” said Dr. Malcolm Taw, an associate clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine and director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. “It’s been shown to demonstrate a benefit.”
Often patients turn to acupuncture after trying other therapies, including epidurals or surgery. “Now, we’re seeing more patients who want to try this first. They want a non-pharmacological approach,” said Taw.
Another factor driving the uptick in patients coming in for acupuncture: referrals from doctors. “Physicians see their patients getting better, so then they refer more of them,” Taw said.
Overall, acupuncture has become more of an accepted therapy, rather than being viewed as an “out-there treatment used by hippies,” said Dr. Ronald Glick, an assistant professor of psychiatry and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
There is strong evidence acupuncture works by turning down pain messages and turning up the release of natural pain relievers called endorphins, Glick said.
Pain relief gets the strongest scientific support, but according to Glick, there are hints acupuncture can help with other hard-to-treat conditions such as:
Pregnancy associated nausea and vomiting
Post-operative nausea and vomiting
Insurance helps ease the economic burden in some cases. In 2012, 60 percent of people in the National Institutes of Health study had some insurance coverage for chiropractic treatments, while 25 percent reported insurances covered acupuncture and 15 percent had some coverage for massage.
Currently, you’re more likely to find acupuncture covered by insurance if you live on one of the coasts than if you live in the middle of the country, Glick said.
Without insurance, the bills can be a bit daunting. Experts suggest, at least in the beginning, that patients come in one to two times a week.
In Pittsburgh, the average cost is $70 to $80 a session, Glick said.
"(In California) it can be anywhere from $80 to $180 a session, depending on who you see,” Taw said. “At our center we charge $40 because we don’t want it to be a huge burden and also because we can use insurance to pay.”
Increases in the number of companies covering acupuncture may be driving some of the demand. “Our center has been around close to 20 years and every year our service gets busier and busier,” Glick said. “The biggest change is with local insurance companies starting to cover it.”
Fear of needles
Some people are afraid of the tiny needles.
“It can be a barrier initially,” Taw said. “Most patients are surprised by how relatively painless it is. I often hear ‘I didn’t feel anything at all,’ at the first needle stick.”
The only way to know if acupuncture works is to give it a try, experts say.
Since treatments can be expensive, it’s best to check with your insurance company to see if it’s covered and if you'll need a doctor’s referral.