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MN acupuncture insurance now covers treatment by licensed nonphysicians, but acupuncture’s efficacy appears limited

If you want acupuncture treatment in Minnesota, you no longer have to go to one of the dozen or so physicians or chiropractors in the state who are board-certified in medical acupuncture.

If you want acupuncture treatment in Minnesota, you no longer have to go to one of the dozen or so physicians or chiropractors in the state who are board-certified in medical acupuncture.

According to a Minnesota law that went into effect on Saturday (Aug. 1), if your health insurance already covers acupuncture treatments provided (or supervised) by physicians, it must also cover treatments provided by licensed nonphysician acupuncturists.

The law, which was sponsored by Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Mpls, and Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Mpls, does not, however, require health plans to start covering acupuncture treatments if they don’t do so already.

A press release issued by the Minnesota House states the reasoning behind the new law: “Advocates said that a growing body of scientific evidence supports the benefits of acupuncture for a variety of conditions.”

Is that statement accurate? Does “a growing body of scientific evidence” show acupuncture to be an effective medical treatment?

Insufficient proof
Not according to a cascade of Cochrane Review meta-analyses, which many scientists consider the “gold standard” method of evaluating the effectiveness of various medical treatments.

The general theme of these reviews: Acupuncture studies to date tend to be small and poorly designed, factors that make their conclusions unreliable. Specifically, the reviewers found insufficient evidence that acupuncture has any effect on such varied medical conditions as stroke, depression, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.

The only good evidence for acupuncture’s effectiveness, according to the Cochrane reviewers, is for the relief of tension-type headaches. They also found some tentative evidence that acupuncture might be able to provide short-term relief from elbow and shoulder pain. For elbow pain, the relief was quite short: less than 24 hours. For shoulder pain, the relief was a bit longer: two to four weeks.

All the reviews call for more rigorous studies.

Placebo effect?
Some research suggests that the placebo effect may explain findings that have shown acupuncture to be effective. As the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes on its website:

There is evidence that people’s attitudes about acupuncture can affect outcomes. In a 2007 study, researchers analyzed data from four clinical trials of acupuncture for various types of chronic pain. Participants had been asked whether they expected acupuncture to help their pain. In all four trials, those with positive expectations reported significantly greater pain relief.

Of course, acupuncture treatments may be no less effective (and a lot less expensive) than many conventional treatments, particularly for ailments like low back pain, which is why, as I reported a few weeks ago, acupuncture is now among the first line of treatments for back pain in Great Britain.

Still, as with all medical treatments, caveat emptor.