By Susan Shand
04 March, 2018

American veteran Jeff Harris was one of the first people to ask for acupuncture when veteran's hospital in Providence, Rhode Island began to offer it.

"I don't like taking pain medication. I don't like the way it makes me feel," he said.

Harris also did not want to risk getting addicted to painkilling drugs.

Treatment by acupuncture
Treatment by acupuncture

The use of acupuncture has increased among patients and doctors in America over the years. The effectiveness of the treatment remains disputed in western medicine.

However, some consider it better than powerful painkillers that are blamed for the crisis of opioid drug use in America.

The Veterans Affairs medical system has been offering acupuncture to treat pain for several years. Some insurance companies cover it. Now, some states have started to offer acupuncture to patients who have Medicaid, an insurance program for the poor. The states are mainly ones where many people have become sick or died from overdosing on opioid drugs.

Ohio's Medicaid program added acupuncture after opioid experts asked state officials to find other ways to treat pain.

"We have a really serious problem here," said Dr. Mary Applegate who is medical director for Ohio's Medicaid department. Applegate says that, if acupuncture is effective in easing pain and stopping opioid addiction, it must be made available.

The opioid crisis is believed to have started with the misuse of painkilling drugs prescribed by doctors.

Many people became addicted to opioid drugs after seeking help to relieve pain. Acupuncture could be a way to help keep some patients from using opioids in the first place.

For a long time in the U.S., acupuncture was considered unstudied and unproven. There has now been a lot of research on acupuncture use for different kinds of pain. However, results of the studies have been unclear.

Federal researchers say there is evidence that acupuncture can help some patients deal with some forms of pain. But they have described the benefits of acupuncture as small and say more research is needed.

Among doctors, there are questions about how much of any benefit is caused by a patient's belief that a treatment will work. This is 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. He is a pain medicine specialist at Case Western Reserve University. He believes acupuncture is effective for neck pain, migraines and a few other kinds of pain problems.

Many doctors are undecided about acupuncture but are willing to let patients give it a try.

Dr. Steven Novella is a neurologist at Yale University and editor of a website that is against non-traditional medicine. He does not think acupuncture works.

Those who believe in acupuncture are using America's opioid problems "to try to promote acupuncture as an alternative treatment," he said. "But promoting a treatment that doesn't work is not going to help."

Acupuncture has been practiced in China for thousands of years. Acupuncturists put thin metal needles into specific spots in the ears or other parts of the body. They say needles put in these spots restore the flow of energy — called "qi" — through the body. This heals the body and eases pain.

In government studies, 1 in 67 U.S. adults say they get acupuncture every year, up from 1 in 91 in 2008. Most patients pay for acupuncture themselves. Only 25 percent of adults getting acupuncture had insurance that covered the cost.

The largest American 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 hospitals offer it for a small fee.

Jeff Harris began acupuncture two years ago. The 50-year-old Marine Corp veteran said he hurt his back while training in the military in the 1980s. Today, he has pain down his legs and deadness of feeling in his feet.

Acupuncture "helped settle" his pain," said Harris.

Another veteran, Harry Garcia of Connecticut tried acupuncture for his back pain after years of using pain medications.

Acupuncture "keeps pain down for up to 10 days," said Garcia.

About ten years ago, the military and Veterans Affairs began using several different ways to treat pain, including acupuncture and yoga.

A recent study says now two-thirds of military hospitals and other treatment centers offer acupuncture.

Emmeline Edwards of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a federal research agency, says the military is more open to try new methods "because the need is so great there."

Her agency is working with the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to spend $81 million on research projects. The agency wants to study the effectiveness of many treatments for pain that do not use drugs.

While research continues, the willingness of medical insurance companies to pay for acupuncture is growing.

California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island pay for acupuncture for pain through their Medicaid insurance programs. Massachusetts and Oregon also pay for acupuncture as a treatment for drug abuse although scientists question its effectiveness.

I'm Dorothy Gundy. And I'm Susan Shand.

Susan Shand adapted this story for Learning English based on an AP story. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

benefits –n. good results that come from some action or treatment

prescribe –v. to officially permit someone to use a medicine or treatment as directed by a doctor, etc.

acupuncture – n. a method of relieving pain or curing illness by placing needles into a person's skin at particular points on the body

addicted – adj. unable to stop using a harmful substance

opioid – n. a drug that has the same effect as opium

insurance – n. an agreement in which a person makes regular payments to a company and the company promises to pay money if the person is injured or dies,

placebo – n. a pill or substance that is given to a patient like a drug but that has no physical effect on the patient

migraine – n. a very bad headache

neurologist – n. one who studies the nervous system and the diseases that affect it

specific - adj. special or particular

yoga –n. a system of exercises for mental and physical health