Martha Stewart Living Radio: The Radio Blog

Acupuncture: Worth the Price?

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We discussed on "Whole Living" how the New York Times reported recently that while more and more people are seeking out acupuncture to address everything from chronic pain and infertility to depression and anxiety, insurance companies still won't pony up the cash.

Of course, I find this maddening.

Not only because I work for Whole Living (the radio show and the magazine), but because it seems, by comparison, a small price to pay to prevent the kinds of problems that, well, cost insurers and employers much more in the long run.

Acupuncture, ain't cheap (average may be around $70 while some pay upwards of $100 or more per session, with cheaper group options available). But again, this brings us back to the issue of pay now, or pay later.

This tool, one of many used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is hardly woo-woo anymore. In fact, we reported in a story in Whole Living that research bears out that acupuncture is a viable treatment option for those suffering back pain: A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that acupuncture might banish back pain nearly twice as effectively as conventional medicine.

Should you stop taking meds and stop going to the doctor and just do acupuncture? No one's saying that. However, that's why integrative medicine is so appealing and so much more modern than the whole thumb-your-nose-at-modern-Western-med movement. We can and should seek out several different therapies, because no single approach is often a cure.

Our bodies are complicated, layered, connected, and yes, mysterious things, and respond in different ways to different treatments. And yet, why insurers would rather wait, contributing nothing to the ongoing care and prevention of bigger problems, and instead have to shell out the money to cover expensive surgeries is beyond me.

When will insurers catch up? It's craziness to think that if they covered complementary treatments like therapeutic massage, acupuncture, network spinal chiropractic, they'd go broke. I think they'd probably save money. Plus, people wouldn't get to the point where they're missing work and needing umpteen weeks off to rehab from said surgeries.

I also think it's on us to invest where possible and where we can in our own health--NOW, not when we're crippled with pain or completely unable to function or worse.

Until insurers wake up and step up, we have to take matters into our own hands. There are acupuncturists who do group sessions, where you can pay around $15 to share a (fully clothed) session with other people--and while you may not get the practitioner's full hour's worth of attention, you still receive the benefits of an age-old practice which may help you in more ways than one.

Terri Trespicio
Host, Whole Living & senior editor at Whole Living magazine
on Twitter @TerriT

Comments (4)

  • Terri,
    Acupuncture is considered alternative medicine because it has never been really proven to work. That's why insurance companies won't pay for it. It appears to work for some individuals because of the placebo effect. That's all it is, a placebo. It has been shown that it doesn't matter where you stick the needles. It has also been shown that toothpicks can do the same as needles. Acupuncture has never been shown to cure any disease. Anyone considering wasting their money on acupuncture should read the books by Sing and Ernst - TRICK OR TREATMENT and Bausell - SNAKE OIL SCIENCE. Both books were written by individuals who worked or practiced in the area of alternative medicine.

  • Terri- I have had the opportunity to clinically observe first-hand many of the positive benefits of acupuncture for a variety of painful conditions. I am glad to say that some insurers have stepped up in their coverage of 'alternative' therapies so that more patients can experience relief.

    I must respectfully disagree with Dr. Bartecchi on two points.

    First, it is dismissive to deem alternative therapies ineffective simply by virtue of their being alternative. There are many approaches to the treatment of any disease entity- some more effective than others, and often what is effective for one patient may be less so for another. This is why patients often seek alternative therapies. In Asian countries, where acupuncture has been the standard of care for a lot longer than our Western model of medicine, it is not considered alternative at all.

    Second, there have been great studies which have demonstrated the neuromodulative effects of acupuncture, which have used PET scans and functional MRI to identify the areas of the brain being stimulated. Yes, these studies have shown that there is some effect of 'placebo' placement of needles on the cingulate gyrus, orbitofrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, insula, and thalamus (areas of the brain which moderate pain.) However, these studies have also shown that these areas were more positively affected when the needling was performed in the correct locations- meaning appropriate treatment was more effective than placebo.

    While some healthy skepticism is useful, I think it is important to be open minded about alternative therapies, particularly when the approaches being considered are not harmful. The Western paradigm for medicine is quite young, and paradigms shift over time (For example, not much more than a hundred years ago, we routinely used heavy metals such as mercury to treat illness.) Complementary medicine has it's place in patient care, and as these alternative modalities become more mainstream- they cease to be alternative.

  • Thousand of studies have been done proving the efficacy of Acupuncture treatments. If someone doubts this it's easy enough to search public medicine files at pubmed.com under acupuncture. Any healing tradition that can survive over 1000 years or more certainly must have value and must have proven its effectiveness. Traditional Chinese Medicine, herbal medicines and theory have been documented over 2000 years. Billions of people have used and continue to use this very ancient, beautifully simplistic way to balance and heal the body.
    Regarding the cost of an Acupuncture treatment, today lower cost Community Acupuncture Clinic are popping up everywhere. These are usually staffed by Licensed Acupuncturist's who have one or several rooms with 5-10 comfortable chairs. Acupuncture in this setting is done primarily on the lower extremities, (below the elbow and below the knee) so there is no need for modesty or undressing. Conveniently, extremities have some of the most used and most effective points on the body. Treatments typically last 30 minutes and may cost as little as $20.00. Often these clinic will have a sliding scale, meaning you can pay what you can afford. Huge benefits can be achieved for a modest, affordable price. These settings offer a relaxing environment and an opportunity for a 30 minute healing session with professionals who train over 3000 hours. (4 years) Licensed Acupuncturist's are not MD's but they do learn Western medicine along with Eastern medicine. Many insurance carriers do currently cover Acupuncture treatments so check with your provider.

  • Ah--in response to this whole discussion, check out this story in Wall St Journal on acupuncture. Talks about studies done on mice. Pretty sure mice don't have a placebo response. They have no expectations of what acupuncture will do to them, and so it's pretty interesting the results they found:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703630304575270792112727252.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_MIDDLENexttoWhatsNewsForth

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