Understanding Medicare and Acupuncture

Reviewed by 
Molly Burford
  • Acupuncture is an alternative treatment used to treat health issues such as chronic pain. 

  • Acupuncture is associated with helping manage various conditions. 

  • Medicare only covers acupuncture for chronic low back pain. 

  • There are other options available for pain management that are covered by Medicare.

Understanding Medicare and Acupuncture Oak Street Health

Medicare patients struggling with health issues such as chronic pain may be interested in alternative medicine to find relief. One such route they may consider is acupuncture. However, is acupuncture covered under Medicare?

In the case of chronic low back pain, Medicare covers acupuncture, but only for a limited amount of sessions and only from a doctor or healthcare provider with set qualifications in acupuncture or oriental medicine. 

As well, what is defined as chronic lower back pain is highly specific. No other conditions besides chronic back pain are covered by Medicare when it comes to acupuncture treatments. 

What is Acupuncture?

What is Acupuncture Oak Street Health

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical treatment. Acupuncture works by penetrating the skin with thin needles to treat pain and other health problems. The needles are inserted into specific points of the body, known as acupuncture points. 

Acupuncture points are connected by meridians, or pathways, that allow energy (qi) to flow uninterrupted. According to traditional Chinese medicine, disruptions in the body’s qi are thought to be what causes disease and other ailments. As such, improving the qi flow is believed to improve one’s overall health. 

Furthermore, acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system. This stimulation then releases chemicals into the brain, spinal cord, and muscles, potentially triggering the body’s natural healing mechanisms. This may help improve physical and emotional wellness. 

Potential Benefits of Acupuncture

Potential Benefits of Acupuncture Oak Street Health

Current studies have shown that acupuncture may help manage some pain conditions, especially in regards to back, knee, and neck pain, as well as headaches and migraines. However, research is still rather limited as far as its effectiveness goes in regard to other health problems.

Despite these research limitations, however, the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture states that acupuncture can also:

  • Reduce pain and other side effects from cancer treatments

  • Aid those seeking to quit smoking 

  • Act as a complementary treatment for diabetes 

  • Treat allergies

  • Lessen depression, anxiety, and insomnia symptoms 

Does Medicare Cover Acupuncture?

As of January 21st, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) stated the federal Medicare program would cover acupuncture, specifically in regard to low back pain. This decision was based on efforts from the federal government to reduce opioid abuse in the United States. By covering acupuncture, the thought was that acupuncture could provide other options besides prescription opioids to treat chronic low back pain. 

However, some stipulations must apply in order for acupuncture treatments to be covered in this scenario. In addition, only chronic lower back pain is covered. 

Does Original Medicare Pay for Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is covered under Medicare Part B, the medical insurance portion of Original Medicare. 

Medicare Part B only covers acupuncture in cases of chronic lower back pain. If this is the case, Medicare Part B covers up to 12 sessions of acupuncture in a 90-day period. However, Medicare will cover an additional eight sessions of acupuncture if improvement is seen. If the doctor determines chronic lower back pain isn’t getting better or is getting worse, Medicare will then not cover any additional acupuncture treatments. 

In any event, coverage will not surpass more than 20 acupuncture treatments in a given year.

Does Medicare Advantage Cover Acupuncture? 

A Medicare Advantage Plan, or Medicare Part C, is Medicare coverage through a private insurer. It provides coverage for Medicare Part A and Medicare Part B. It also covers Medicare Part D, prescription drug coverage.

Medicare Part C will have the same level of coverage levels as Original Medicare, meaning that the same qualifications for acupuncture coverage apply for those with this Medicare plan. 

That said, some Medicare Advantage plans may include acupuncture coverage for other health issues besides chronic back pain. Medicare beneficiaries should contact their insurance provider to understand their coverage for their specific plan and situation. 

Acupuncture Costs

According to the official Medicare website, cost details are not yet available for this particular Medicare benefit. 


What Does Medicare Qualify as Chronic Low Back Pain?

What Does Medicare Qualify as Chronic Low Back Pain Oak Street Health

The following must be true in order for Medicare to define a condition as chronic lower back pain: 

  • Symptoms must be present for 12 weeks or more

  • No identifiable systemic cause (i.e. cannot be related to metastatic cancer, inflammatory, or infectious disease)

  • Pain not associated with surgery or pregnancy

Necessary Qualifications of Acupuncture Practitioners

Acupuncture must be administered by a doctor, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, or by another health care provider who has the following qualifications: 

  • A master’s or doctoral acupuncture degree from a school accredited by the Accreditation Commission on Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine; an Oriental Medicine degree at the masters or doctorate level is also accepted 

  • An active and unrestricted license to practice acupuncture in the state where care is being administered

Other Options for Pain Management Covered by Medicare

There are other options for pain management covered by Medicare, including:

  • Physical therapy

  • Occupational therapy

  • Chiropractic care

Summary

Patients with chronic health issues may seek alternative treatments to find pain relief. One such treatment is acupuncture. The question, then, is whether Medicare covers it. Medicare covers acupuncture under certain conditions. 

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