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Why the future of acupuncture is promising

by May 2, 2022

Home » NUHS Blog » Why the future of acupuncture is promising

In recent decades, acupuncture has become increasingly common and widespread across mainstream medicine, gaining more acceptance across top U.S. hospitals, the federal government and insurance companies. Its reach is not expected to slow down anytime soon either.  

From 2022-2026, market research analysis predicts that the global acupuncture market will grow by over $14 billion. According to the report, there are several trends contributing to this growth, such as the increasing aging population, rising health problems, growing prevalence of chronic pain and gynecological disorders.  

 As acupuncture continues to cement itself as a respected and effective form of alternative medicine, research shows that more money is being spent on acupuncture, too. 

 Here are a few more reasons acupuncture students should be optimistic about their careers ahead. 

Newly funded research continues to support the effectiveness of acupuncture 

 With the rise of opioid epidemic, the National Institutes of Health has turned to alternative medicine as a possible solution for pain relief. This has resulted in more funding for scientific research regarding alternative medicine treatments. Acupuncture, in particular, has already shown a lot of promise.  

 According to a 2019 study, various types of acupuncture techniques, including electroacupuncture and dry needling, often result in reported pain improvement. More recently, a 2021 study conducted by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School shows how acupuncture works to reduce inflammation in order to treat chronic pain and other conditions. In the study, the researchers were able to identify a subset of neurons that must be present for acupuncture to trigger an anti-inflammatory response.  

 Lead investigator Qiufu Ma, a Harvard Medical School professor of neurobiology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said the study is the first concrete, neuroanatomic explanation for acupoint selectivity and specificity. 

 More promising research is on the horizon, too. According to the Harvard Gazette, Ma plans to continue his research by clinically testing electroacupuncture in humans who have inflammation caused by infections like COVID-19.  

Acupuncture practitioners are now being hired at Veteran medical centers 

 Military members and veterans are among the various patient populations acupuncture practitioners treat in the field. Veterans often use acupuncture for headache, back pain, neck pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, among veterans, acupuncture is one of the top two integrative medicine procedures referred to an outside provider, according to a 2018 research brief published in Medical Acupuncture. The brief also noted that in 2014, 11,000 active-duty members received acupuncture for treatments related to pain management. 

 With the popularity and effectiveness of acupuncture becoming more evident in recent years, the Veteran Health Association (VHA) officially allowed the hiring of licensed acupuncture practitioners at its medical centers in 2018. The VHA also allowed acupuncture care to be covered by the veterans’ medical benefits package. In addition, the VHA says that it seeks to foster an understanding of the profession, develop an appreciation of the emerging evidence for acupuncture, and create the cultural shift to support a wider view of complementary and integrative health services. 

 Not only do these initiatives help increase job opportunities for acupuncture practitioners, the move also raises awareness about the field and its effectiveness. 

Acupuncture could be an effective treatment for the millions suffering from long COVID 

 COVID-19 is among the challenges all health care students will face in their future careers. Acupuncture practitioners are no exception. Research shows that more than 1 out of 3 people who contract COVID-19 continue to suffer from “long COVID” symptoms, which can include fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, sleep disorders, fevers, anxiety and depression. 

 Acupuncture practitioners have been treating these conditions both in China and the United States. In fact, University Hospitals’ Connor Whole Health in Cleveland has already seen success treating long COVID with acupuncture, according to a local news article. 

 With the National Institutes of Health spending $1.15 billion to study long COVID as an emerging chronic disease, acupuncture may be one form of treatment that is studied for its effectiveness. 

The expansion of insurance coverage for acupuncture is increasing consumer use and spending 

 In the last decade, insurance coverage for acupuncture has continued to grow. According to a Medical Expenditure Panel Survey from 2010-2019, the amount of acupuncture visits covered by insurance grew from 41% to over half (50.2%). 

 As insurance coverage has increased, the amount of money spent on acupuncture has increased, too. According to the survey, the total amount spent on acupuncturist visits was an average of $593 in 2010-2011 compared to $1,021 in 2018-2019.  This increase was attributed to an increase in acupuncturist visits among users from an average of 5.4 visits per person in 2010 to 8.2 visits per person in 2019. With both visits and the amount spent almost doubling, acupuncture practitioners can reasonably expect to take home more money, especially as insurance coverage expands further. 

Acupuncture is being utilized in the fight against the opioid epidemic  

 One way the federal government is seeking to combat the opioid epidemic is by providing Medicaid coverage for acupuncture treatment. In January 2020, the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized a rule providing coverage for patients who require acupuncture treatment for chronic lower back pain. The decision was specifically attributed to the fight against the opioid epidemic, along with studies that showed the effectiveness of acupuncture. 

 Kimberly Brandt, principal deputy administrator of operations and policy at CMS, said that CMS is dedicated to increasing access for alternatives to prescription opioids. She believes that covering acupuncture for chronic low back pain is in the best interest of Medicare patients. 

 At the state level, those that expanded Medicaid programs and provided greater access to health care, experienced a 6% decline in opioid deaths, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. With access to health care options like acupuncture continually growing, this number could certainly increase. In the near future, acupuncture students may be among the health care professionals who help bring an end to the ongoing opioid epidemic. 

 For the federal government and across many organizations, acupuncture is already proving to be an answer to many of today’s health challenges. This is largely why the acupuncture field is expected to expand so rapidly. Current acupuncture students have a lot to look forward to, including increased insurance coverage, patients, jobs and demand. For those considering a career in health care, an education in acupuncture is a promising investment; not just today but for the long term.   

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