Providence, R.I. – Marine veteran Jeff Harris was among the first to sign up when the Providence VA hospital started offering acupuncture for chronic pain.

“I don’t like taking pain medication. I don’t like the way it makes me feel,” he said.

Harris also didn’t want to risk getting addicted to heavy-duty prescription painkillers.

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.

“We have a really serious problem here,” said Dr. Mary Applegate, medical director for Ohio’s Medicaid department. “If it’s proven to be effective, we don’t want to have barriers in the way of what could work.”

The epidemic was triggered by an explosion in prescriptions of powerful painkiller pills, though many of the recent overdose opioid deaths are attributed to heroin and illicit fentanyl. Many opioid addictions begin with patients in pain seeking help, and acupuncture is increasingly seen as a way to help keep some patients from ever having to go on opioids in the first place.

For a long time in the U.S., acupuncture was considered unstudied and unproven – some skeptics called it “quack-u-puncture.” 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.

Among doctors, there remains lively debate over how much of any benefit can be attributed simply to patients’ belief that the treatment is working – the so-called “placebo effect.”

“There may be a certain amount of placebo effect. Having said that, it is still quite effective as compared to no treatment,” said Dr. Ankit Maheshwari, a pain medicine specialist at Case Western Reserve University, who sees it as valuable for neck pain, migraines and a few other types of pain problems.

Many doctors are ambivalent about acupuncture but still willing to let patients give it a try, said Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and editor of an alternative medicine-bashing website. He considers acupuncture a form of patient-fooling theater.

Acupuncturists and their proponents are “exploiting the opioid crisis to try to promote acupuncture as an alternative treatment,” he said. “But promoting a treatment that doesn’t work is not going to help the crisis.”

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” – 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.

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.

About a decade ago, the military and Veteran Affairs began promoting a range of alternative approaches to pain treatment, including acupuncture and yoga.


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