Why Won’t My Primary Care Physician Prescribe Acupuncture?

In short? Because it’s not something most physicians are familiar with. Plus, most insurance plans won’t cover the cost.

But let’s step back for a minute and talk about acupuncture itself. In the world of alternative medicine, acupuncture reigns supreme in terms of legitimacy. That means it has a lot of practitioners, people like it, and science actually backs it up – most of the time. Here’s a brief overview and what you should know about your physician and acupuncture.

What is it?

According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture involves the “insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body.” It is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, and it is used commonly to treat pain. However, acupuncture is increasingly used for overall wellness, which includes stress management.

In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is known as a technique used for balancing qi, the flow of energy or life force. By inserting needles into specific points along the body’s key meridians, practitioners believe that the energy flow will rebalance. By contrast, in Western medicine, practitioners see key acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. Some think that this stimulation boosts the body’s natural painkillers.

Does it work?

According to several studies, yes, it does. A meta-analysis of 29 peer-reviewed studies, which involved nearly 18,000 patients, found that acupuncture is effective for treating chronic pain. It is therefore a reasonable referral option. Though the differences between acupuncture and the placebo were modest, they were enough to inform the findings of this massive study.

Why won’t my doctor prescribe it?

Most doctors unfamiliar with alternative medicine are not convinced that acupuncture can treat anything.

If you really think acupuncture is the answer for your chronic pain or other ailment, there are steps you can take to get the treatment. You can pursue an acupuncturist on your own and ask for a consultation. However, most health insurance plans do not cover the common practice, and so finding an in-network practitioner may be difficult.

If seeking a practitioner on your own isn’t ideal, there are strategies for talking with your doctor. Acupuncture is a complementary medical practice, which means it should be done alongside other treatment methods. When approaching the conversation, begin with this idea – that acupuncture is best practiced alongside other treatments is ideal. This is a great way to strike a compromise between yourself and your primary care physician.

That said, I don’t recommend pointing your doctor to individual studies; if they’re a good doctor, they’ll do the research on their own. No physician likes to be lectured by a patient, especially if it seems as though the patient’s research is cherry-picked. However, if your doctor is extremely stubborn, this study, published in Primary Care (a well-respected journal), is informative, comprehensive, and polite.

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Does Meditation Really Change the Brain?

In alternative medicine circles, meditation is sort of a catch-all treatment for a variety of ailments, mostly related to mental health. In modern medicine circles, meditation is rarely, if ever, a treatment recommendation; instead, doctors tend to think of it as a way to relax after a difficult day. I know plenty of doctors who meditate, but none of them ever prescribe it to patients. But should they?

The effect of meditation on the brain is an interesting one, and research regarding the connection has been rolling in steadily for several years. As it turns our meditation can have a variety of neurological benefits. There have been some very exciting studies in the past few years, and I’ve combed through them with a believer’s enthusiasm and a skeptic’s precision. Here are some of the ways meditation can change the brain and be used for treatment.

It Helps Aging Brains

In 2015, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators, or people who had been meditating regularly for an average of 20 years, had better-preserved brains than those who did not meditate. The study discovered the meditators had more grey matter volume in the brain. This grey matter contains much of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies and is essential to muscle control and sensory perception. The older you get, the less grey matter your brain has – unless, according to this study, you’ve been meditating for 20 years.

In this application, meditation is not a great treatment option. You can’t very well tell someone to go meditate for 20 years and come back younger. That said, if you’re worried about losing functionality as you age, it’s never a bad time to start up a practice.

It Reduces Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, and Pain

A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins university found that meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain. However, there was low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. “We found low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight,” the study states. However, it continues, stating, “clinicians should be aware that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.”

What does that mean? Meditation isn’t a magic bullet for depression, but it’s a tool that patients and physicians can use to manage symptoms.

It Can Aid Addiction Recovery

Several studies have shown that meditation can be effective in helping people recover from various addictions. For example, one study compared the effects of meditation to the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking program. Researchers found that those who “learned mindfulness” through meditation were more likely to have quit smoking than those in conventional treatment after 17 weeks. The researchers conclude that this is likely due to the fact that meditation has measurable effects on the regions of the brain that moderate self-control.

While meditation can help with addiction, remember that weaning off more dangerous substances, like alcohol and opioids, is best handled in a professional medical setting. This is the best way to control possible withdrawal symptoms. However, once through the withdrawal period, meditation can help with maintaining a substance-free life.

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