Study finds acupuncture benefits 70% of tension headache sufferers – but does your insurance cover it?

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While the traditional Chinese practice provides benefits for people with chronic pain, insurance coverage is inconsistent.


For many chronic pain sufferers, acupuncture can be life changing. Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Neurology found that the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, which uses the placement of fine needles on the skin to stimulate specific points on the body, was able to relieve chronic tension headaches in nearly 70% of the cases studied. Most of these people had suffered from the condition for more than a decade and reported experiencing these painful headaches an average of 21 days per month. After eight weeks of treatment, they only have headaches on about seven days a month.

And the benefits don’t stop with headaches. Many other studies point to the practice can help treat chronic pain lower back, neck, knee, and other health issues such as nausea from cancer treatments. A recent study even discovered that acupuncture could be more effective than drugs in treating and preventing migraines.

Unfortunately, clinical practice guidelines are inconsistent in their recommendations for therapy and therefore insurance coverage for acupuncture also varies from plan to plan. One thing, however, is consistent: you will most likely have to pay at least some of the cost of your sessions out of pocket. A recent survey of more than 1,000 people published in JAMA Network Open found that half of respondents said their insurance did not cover acupuncture, and of those who obtained coverage, nearly 60% still engaged. reimbursable fees.

Here’s what you need to know before making an appointment:

How much does acupuncture usually cost?

According to the recent JAMA survey, people spent an average of $1,021 per year for about eight sessions. Those who had insurance paid about half that cost ($554) out of pocket.

A 2019 study that looked at the cost of acupuncture in 41 US cities found that the cost range for an initial acupuncture visit was $15 to $400, with the highest median being $150 (at Charleston, SC), while the lowest was $45 (in St. Louis). For follow-up visits, the cost was $15 to $300.

When is acupuncture covered by insurance?

As noted, coverage varies from provider to provider and plan to plan. Here is a sample of what some major insurance companies might cover:

  • Etna: As of 2022, Aetna considers acupuncture a standard benefit for the treatment of chronic neck pain and headaches, lower back pain, pregnancy-related or chemotherapy-induced nausea, knee pain or hip due to osteoarthritis, postoperative dental pain or temporomandibular disorders. If no benefit is seen after four weeks, the treatment plan can be reassessed.
  • Cigna: Coverage depends on the type of plan you have. If your plan covers acupuncture, it should be deemed medically necessary and limited to conditions such as migraine, musculoskeletal joint and soft tissue pain, and nausea related to pregnancy, chemotherapy, or post-surgical.
  • Permanent Kaiser: Acupuncture services are covered when a participating acupuncturist believes the services are medically necessary to treat or diagnose neuromusculoskeletal conditions, nausea or pain. Not all plans offer coverage, but when they do, the copayment is $15 per visit for a total of 20 combined visits per year.
  • United Healthcare: Employer-sponsored plans can cover acupuncture (at a 30% copayment for high-deductible plans) for up to 12 visits per year for the relief of pain or nausea related to surgery, pregnancy or chemotherapy.

Does health insurance cover acupuncture?

Yes, but it’s limited. Acupuncture is covered by two types of Medicare insurance plans – Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage – as well as Medicare Supplement (Medigap) policies, but only for chronic low back pain, which the agency defines as having no known cause (no pain associated with surgery, pregnancy, or cancer) and lasting 12 weeks or more. Medicare limits the number of treatments to 12 acupuncture sessions in 90 days, and allows eight more only if your condition shows signs of improvement, for a maximum of 20 acupuncture treatments per calendar year.

Can I use my HSA or FSA account to pay for acupuncture?

Yes! When recommended by a medical professional for a medical condition, the cost of acupuncture is an eligible medical expense that may be paid for with funds from either a FSA Where HSA Account.

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