Written by Beth Morrison, L.Ac.
Medicare Now Covers Acupuncture
As of January 2020, chronic back pain is a condition that is now approved by Medicare for treatment with acupuncture. Why is this significant? Because Congress only reviews coverage decisions like this every ten years. While we do not accept Medicare in our practice, this change is great news for seniors across the U.S.
Back Pain Defined
In the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Decision Memo, chronic back pain is described as lasting 12 weeks or longer and has no identifiable systemic cause. Usually, lower back pain resolves within four weeks, however, some patients experience pain and disability for longer than three months without change. Managing chronic back pain includes prescription opioids which have been associated with addiction and overdose death.
How Acupuncture Can Help
Acupuncture is among the non-pharmacologic therapies that may decrease the need for and the side effects of prescription opioids. While there are many different approaches to treating chronic back pain with acupuncture, both traditional and “ah-shi” points are used. “Ah-shi” points are individual to each patient and are found by palpating the painful areas on the body. Often, points in the muscle are stimulated with needles, sometimes with electricity, called “e-stim.”
There has been much research into the mechanism of pain reduction through acupuncture, but it remains inconclusive. That said, acupuncture has been used for millennia to treat all kinds of pain and there is empirical evidence that says it is effective and decreasing recovery times.
How Acupuncture Works
Acupuncture has a local effect of a release of adenosine at the site of the needle stimulation as well as an increase in blood flow. It also has an effect on the brain by releasing internal compounds called opioids that are created by the body.
Research studies show evidence that adults 65 years of age or older with chronic back pain showed improvements in function and pain. Acupuncture has shown much benefit and low harm while prescription opioids have a high risk of harm.
The National Institute on Health is researching the impact of acupuncture in adults 65 years and older with chronic back pain through its Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative. The goal of HEAL is to find scientific solutions to help the opioid crisis and improve pain management. The Decision Memo to provide Medicare payment for acupuncture can be found here.
For more information on back pain read additional content on our blog.