The Role of Acupuncture in Treating Chronic Pain

Acupuncture may sound like an exotic—maybe even improbable—treatment for chronic pain. But this age-old Chinese medical practice has been increasingly accepted in this country as an alternative treatment for low back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis, and is now covered by some American insurance companies.


Although acupuncture, a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is one of the oldest healing arts in the world, it was not recognized by the English-speaking world, nor was it regulated in the US, until journalist James Reston returned from China and wrote about his experience in a New York Times article, “Now, About My Operation in Peking,”July 26, 1971.

Since that time, more and more Americans—and their physicians—have been finding acupuncture a useful tool, especially for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis/knee pain, and headaches, including migraines. Acupuncture also shows promise as a complementary therapy to control symptoms in the treatment of cancer.  In fact, Western doctors have used acupuncture to treat the pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. 

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture (a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM) is a practice 3,500 years older than traditional Western medicine. It works by applying needles, heat, and pressure to specific points on the body. The theory is that invigorating these points releases or redirects the body’s natural energy known as chi or qi because illness and pain come from blockages or imbalances of this vital life force.

Does It Work?

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), a number of studies suggest that acupuncture works particularly well on chronic pain such as back and neck pain; osteoarthritis/knee pain; and headache. It often reduces the incidence and severity of tension headaches and may prevent migraines. “Therefore,” the NIH concludes, “acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider.”

A review article that appeared in Practical Pain Management found that pain relief with acupuncture comes from inactivating the source of pain by modulating endorphin levels. These authors also reported on the benefits of acupuncture for temporomadibular joint disorder (TMD).

Often patients will see their acupuncturist on a regular basis, simply to maintain a feeling of general well being.  Despite the fact that the procedure is performed by inserting hair-thin needles into various parts of the body, acupuncture is considered non-invasive and gentle. 

“Side Effects”

Sara Calabro, acupuncturist and founder of the web site, AcuTake, recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek article for The Huffington Post about the “side effects” of acupuncture and listed them as “better sleep, more energy, mental clarity, better digestion, and less stress.” Unfortunately her facetious style was lost on some readers who reacted with alarm seeing the words “side effects.”  Ms. Calabro later clarified the less benign, but rare, complaints that can follow an acupuncture treatment using the more commonly understood meaning of the term “side effects.” 

According to Ms. Calabro, those infrequent, but possible, side effects can take the form of:  a worsening of symptoms; fatigue; soreness; bruising; muscle twitching; lightheadedness; and emotional release (crying).

But these symptoms are very rare and neither serious nor long lasting.  According to Ms. Calabro, they should not deter anyone from trying acupuncture for the first time.

Tips for Finding a Good Acupuncturist

Marisa Fanelli has been a practicing acupuncturist in Wayland, Massachusetts for the past five years. She advises anyone new to acupuncture to look first for a licensed and certified practitioner (more on that below).  Beyond that, she cautions, make sure to find a practitioner you feel comfortable with, “Our styles are so incredibly different. It’s like hiring an artist and saying paint me a picture of that flower. You’re going to get very different pictures of the flower.”

Ellen Harnett is a health and nutrition coach who went regularly to a practitioner for back pain over 20 years ago and felt tense and uncomfortable throughout the procedure. Worse, she got no relief. But four months ago she began to see someone with whom she is comfortable.  Ms. Harnett says she is so relaxed that she nearly “fall(s)  asleep on the table.” More importantly, she gets relief, albeit temporary, from her degenerative disc back pain with each treatment.  The relief can last up to several days.

What Credentials Should You Look For?

Licensing requirements for acupuncturists vary from state to state. Some states are more stringent than others. In 1981, three trade associations were founded to set standards of practice: The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM), The Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM), and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).  So it can be a bit bewildering to find the most qualified practitioner for you. But most states require the NCCAOM certification and the NCCAOM site has a helpful search tool for finding a licensed accredited acupuncturist in your area,  as does  Acufinder

Insurance Coverage

Neither Medicaid nor Medicare covers acupuncture. But some insurance companies do. Your best bet is to call the number on your insurance card and ask about it. If they do cover acupuncture, ask a few follow-up questions, such as:

  1. How many treatments do I get?
  2. How much does the insurance company pay?
  3. What is the normal co-pay for acupuncture from a preferred provider? (This is the amount you would pay out-of-pocket for each visit to a practitioner on their provider list.)
  4. What percentage will I pay for out-of-network practitioners?  (This is the amount you would pay out-of-pocket for each visit to a practitioner who is NOT on their provider list.)
  5. Who must provide the acupuncture?
  6. Will I need a referral from an MD to see the acupuncturist?
  7. What is my deductible?
  8. What conditions are covered for acupuncture? (Many plans only cover the treatment of pain)


Updated on: 08/15/16
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