More Americans Without Insurance Are Turning to Alternative Medicine 

The CDC reports an increase in acupuncture, massage therapy, and chiropractic healing to treat pain.  

Marnie Joyce/Flickr

One of the fastest-growing fields in healthcare eschews drugs and modern technology. More and more, Americans are treating their bodies with complementary and alternative medicine. Currently about 38 percent of United States adults and 12 percent of children are turning to CAM — a term that encompasses treatments like chiropractic care and homeopathic treatments.

There is also an increasing number of Americans without health insurance who are choosing to use these alternative health approaches, according to a report released Friday from the CDC. The use of acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage therapy — the three most commonly licensed practitioner-based CAM techniques — increased among uninsured adults between 2002 and 2012.

Stone massage therapy.


People who frequently saw a chiropractor were the most likely to have at least partial health insurance coverage, followed by acupuncture, then massage therapy. But regardless, the CDC reports that there was a significant increase in each of these therapies among those without insurance.

These numbers are indicative of the increasing number of Americans who are starting to see their pain as something that needs to be cured in both their mind and body.

“This may be why so many chronic pain sufferers are drawn to traditional medicine: The Cartesian idea of mind-body duality never found its way into these ancient systems,” writes Jennie Rothenberg Gritz in The Atlantic. “Acupuncture, for instance, has been shown to help with problems like back, neck, and knee pain. But it’s very hard for science to figure out how it works, since it involves so many components that are mental as well as physical. The technique of inserting the needles, the attitude of the practitioner, the patient’s own attention — all of these are built into the treatment itself.”

But the frequency of uninsured Americans paying out of pocket for CAM therapies came as a bit of a surprise because the Affordable Care Act actually instructs insurance companies to “not discriminate” against any state-licensed health provider — meaning that using a licensed chiropractor results in the same reimbursement as using a medical doctor. The ACA was designed to take an integrative approach for both conventional and alternative medicine.

“Patients want good outcomes with good value, and complementary and alternative therapies can provide both,” Senator Tom Harkin, who authored the anti-discrimination provision, told PBS.

So why the increase in uninsured folks using CAM therapies, when their insurance could very well help cover the costs? It could come down to the historical confusion that comes with the ACA — polls consistently demonstrate that most Americans don’t really understand what the ACA covers.

More and more people are using alternative medicine — but they don’t realize that their next trip to the massage therapist could partly be paid for by the government.

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