Many Alternative Therapies for Back Pain Not Covered

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has confirmed what many back pain sufferers already know: Public and private health insurance plans often do not cover non-drug alternative pain therapies.

Bloomberg researchers looked at dozens of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial insurance coverage policies for chronic lower back pain and found that while most plans covered physical therapy and chiropractic care, there was little or no coverage for acupuncture, massage or counseling.

"This study reveals an important opportunity for insurers to broaden and standardize their coverage of non-drug pain treatments to encourage their use as safer alternatives to opioids," says senior author Caleb Alexander, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School.  

Alexander and his colleagues examined 15 Medicaid, 15 Medicare Advantage and 15 major commercial insurer plans that were available in 16 states in 2017.

Most payers covered physical therapy (98%), occupational therapy (96%), and chiropractic care (89%), but coverage was inconsistent for many of the other therapies.

Acupuncture was covered by only five of the 45 insurance plans and only one plan covered therapeutic massage.


Nine of the Medicaid plans covered steroid injections, but only three covered psychological counseling.

"We were perplexed by the absence of coverage language on psychological interventions," Alexander says. "It's hard to imagine that insurers wouldn't cover that."  

Even for physical therapy, a well-established method for relieving lower back pain, insurance coverage was inconsistent.

"Some plans covered two visits, some six, some 12; some allowed you to refer yourself for treatment, while others required referral by a doctor," Alexander says. "That variation indicates a lack of consensus among insurers regarding what model coverage should be, or a lack of willingness to pay for it.”  

The Bloomberg study is being published online in the journal JAMA Network Open.  It was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, but there is surprisingly little consensus on the best way to treat it. A recent series of reviews by an international team of experts in The Lancet medical journal found that low back pain is usually treated with bad advice, inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Rachelle Buchbinder, PhD, a professor at Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

The authors recommend counseling, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy as first-line treatments for short-term low back pain, followed by spinal manipulation, massage, acupuncture, meditation and yoga as second line treatments. They found limited evidence to support the use of opioids for low back pain, and epidural steroid injections and acetaminophen (paracetamol) are not recommended at all.

4 M’s That Can Help Lower Pain Levels

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

This month I am looking at the 4 M’s of pain management as part of my series on alternative pain treatments: magnets, massage, mindfulness and music.  

Once again, I know and understand that these therapies will not help everyone. And when they do offer some relief, it will be temporary and vary in nature. That’s no reason not to try them.


I found mindfulness helpful and now use mindfulness techniques in my daily life to assist in pain management.

When I first started to look at mindfulness, I turned to Melissa Geraghty, PsyD, for input on the benefits and techniques. Dr. Geraghty serves on iPain’s medical advisory board and is a chronic pain patient herself.


“It’s human nature to pull away from pain, whether that pain is physical or emotional. We inherently try to avoid pain or distract ourselves from pain,” she told me.

“Maybe in the short term we feel avoiding or distracting ourselves helps, but this is not sustainable with chronic pain. The pain will always be there, so we can either continue to be stuck in the cycle of fighting it, or we can accept that we have chronic pain and figure out how to engage in our lives.”

Mindfulness is used to reduce stress, depression, anxiety and pain levels, and can also be used in drug addiction counseling. Clinical studies have documented both physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness for different medical conditions, as well as in healthy adults and children.

Mindfulness involves several meditation exercises designed to develop mindfulness skills. One method is to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and bring attention to either the sensations of breathing in one’s nostrils or to the movements of the abdomen when breathing in and out. When engaged in this practice, the mind will often run off to other thoughts and associations. When this happens, one passively notices that the mind has wandered, and in an accepting, non-judgmental way, you return to focus on breathing.

Other meditation exercises to develop mindfulness include body-scan meditation, where attention is directed at various areas of the body and body sensations. You can also focus on sounds, thoughts, feelings and actions that are going on around you. A mindfulness session is typically done in short periods of about 10 minutes. The more you practice, the easier it is to focus your attention and breathing.

I recently had a mindfulness session with a therapist as part of a documentary I was filming. I noticed that having someone guide me through a session, as opposed to doing it on my own, was very beneficial. I got to focus on positive thinking, letting go of negatives that happen in life, and living life in the now.

“Mindfulness practice allows people with chronic pain to participate in the moment instead of watching life pass you by. Life may not flow in the way you expected it to before chronic pain, but living in an endless cycle of psychological misery isn’t living at all,” says Dr. Geraghty.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is another treatment that I use. My husband and I purchased a massage table back in 2005 at the suggestion of my physical therapist. I can do exercises on it or have my husband give me massages as needed. This is especially good for migraines, headaches and overall blood flow in my body.

There is conflicting information on whether massage helps relieve pain and others symptoms associated with nerve pain diseases. Much of the scientific studies show beneficial short term effects, and I agree with them based on my own experiences.

Not only do I find massage therapy helpful with my pain levels, it also helps me relax and let go of stress. My massage therapist told me that even a single massage session has been shown to significantly lower heart rate, cortisol and insulin levels --- which  reduce stress.


Massage can also improve posture, which helps reinforce healthy movement. Other benefits of massage are better breathing and training the body how to relax. Clinical studies have shown that massage may be useful for chronic low-back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis of the knee.

Magnet Therapy

Magnet therapy dates back at least 2,000 years, according to New York University Langone Medical Center. Healers in Europe and Asia used magnets to treat many different ailments, believing that the magnets can draw disease from the body.

Typically, therapeutic magnets are integrated into bracelets, rings, shoe inserts, clothing and even mattresses. Despite a lack of scientific evidence that magnet therapy works, an estimated $1 billion a year is spent on the sale of therapeutic magnets worldwide. Makers of these products claim they help increase blood flow to areas of the body where the magnet is worn, which brings in more oxygen and helps tissues heal faster. While larger studies have shown little to no therapeutic value in magnets, some smaller studies have found some benefit.

Pain patient Elizabeth Kandu is a believer in magnet therapy, although she’s not sure how it works.

“Who really knows if it’s a placebo effect or really works in everyone,” she says. “For me, without at least the metal to skin in 2 or 3 places, I am an electric nightmare.”

Elizabeth is right that there may be some placebo effect in play, but if magnets provide some relief they may be worth a try. It will be interesting to hear from PNN readers who have tried magnets and if any therapeutic value was found.

Music Therapy

I have been using music to excite my soul since childhood. I now also use it to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs that come with living in pain.

According to Warrior Music Foundation’s Michael Caimona, music provides sensory stimulation, stirs emotional responses, facilitates social interaction and communication, and provides diversion from inactivity.  Music also helps us get through sad times and helps us heal from bad times.

I’ve found music to be an effective tool in reducing pain levels and anxiety, and it helps stimulate the brain. I have even had surgeons put on music during my procedures. Although I cannot hear it consciously under anesthesia, I am able to hear it subconsciously and believe in the positivity of it. I also use music during infusion therapy and on moderate pain days.


Another study I found reported that children who listened to music while having an IV needle inserted into their arms showed less distress and felt less pain than the children who did not listen to music. Research also shows that music therapy helps patients become more engaged in their treatment and physical therapy.

There are two different forms of music therapy, active and receptive. The patient can actively create music with instruments or by singing. In receptive therapy, the patient is more relaxed and is listening or participating in other activates while the music is being played.

I hope that spotlighting these alternative pain treatments will help readers understand that there are many forms of therapy, and it’s up to each patient to find what works for them. Many times as patients we feel we have tried everything. But until your pain is at a constant low number on the 1-10 pain scale or a zero, I encourage you to keep discussing options and trying new treatments.

The goal is to get the best living you can out of each day. I look forward to hearing what has and hasn’t worked for you.

Barby Ingle.jpg

Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

9 Holistic Approaches to Relieve Joint Pain

By Nicole Noel, Guest Columnist

Whatever your ailment may be, holistic medicine has an answer.

A therapeutic method that dates back to early civilizations, holistic medicine takes into account the mind, body, emotions and spirit -- with the aim of helping patients achieve or restore proper balance in life and prevent or heal a range of conditions, including musculoskeletal pain. Holistic treatments offer a ray of hope for many patients suffering from arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia and other conditions that cause joint pain.

Not all alternative medicine is created equal, and some natural healing methods will produce better and quicker results. If you want to treat arthritis and other joint aches with holistic treatments, here are a few natural pain relievers you can try.

1. Tai Chi

A low-impact activity that can increase range of motion and strengthen joints and surrounding muscle tissue, tai chi is an ancient physical and spiritual practice that can help arthritis patients soldier through their pain.

According to a 2013 study, tai chi can relieve pain, stiffness, and other side-effects of osteoarthritis. In addition to pain relief, tai chi can help improve range of motion and alleviate joint pain for people living with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.


2. Yoga

Another ancient technique which promotes natural healing, yoga is perfect for individuals suffering from lower back and joint pain. Gentle stretches and poses opening the joints can help prevent and alleviate chronic soreness in the shoulders, hips, and knees.

A form of yoga called mudras utilizes a series of hand gestures to increase energy, and improve mood and concentration.

3. Massage

An invigorating massage with warm essential oil can help many conditions, and joint pain is one of them.

By enhancing blood flow, relaxing the muscle tissue and soothing inflammation, a well-timed massage can ease joint stiffness and increase range of motion in individuals suffering from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and osteoporosis.


4. Acupuncture

A 2013 review of medical studies has shown that acupuncture can help relieve musculoskeletal pain caused by fibromyalgia. By activating the body’s natural pain relief system and stimulating the nerves, muscles and connective tissue, acupuncture can relieve joint aches for people who are resistant to other holistic pain relief techniques.

A 2010 study found that acupuncture can also be a beneficial for peripheral joint osteoarthritis.

5. Diet Changes

An apple a day may or may not keep the doctor away, but a custom-tailored diet can help you with joint pain. Nutritional tweaks can begin with increased intake of chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine, and Omega 3 fatty acids, which can reduce joint pain in arthritis and osteoporosis patients.

To ease joint problems, your pantry should be stocked with foods that promote healing and reduce inflammation, such as onions, carrots, and flaxseed. Herbs and spices such as turmeric (curcumin) and cayenne pepper can also help with pain relief.


6. Aromatherapy

If you think pain relief can’t smell good, you’re mistaken. Studies have shown that peppermint and eucalyptus oil can reduce swelling, pain and discomfort in patients with inflamed joints. For joint soreness and stiffness caused by arthritis, aromatherapy experts recommend regular application of myrrh, turmeric, orange, or frankincense oil to ease inflammation and pain, and to increase range of motion.

You can also combine aromatherapy with heat and cold treatments.  Be sure to keep the tender joints elevated during treatment to reduce swelling.

7. Spa Treatments

Few things can beat the appeal of a full-scale spa experience. If you’re suffering from knee, hip, shoulder or elbow pain and other holistic methods haven’t helped, try balneotherapy, which combines aqua massage with deep soaks in heated mineral water and medicinal mud baths.

One study found that balneotherapy significantly reduced knee and back pain in older adults.

8. Aquatic Sports

If you don’t want to immerse yourself in mud, you can supplement your holistic pain therapy with water aerobics, swimming, aqua jogging or aqua spinning. According to a 2014 study, water exercises can ease pain and improve joint function for osteoarthritis patients.

Additionally, a 2015 study found that aquatic circuit training can help relieve knee pain in cases of progressed osteoarthritis.


9. Capsaicin cream

Another natural treatment for joint pain and stiffness is homemade capsaicin cream, which can help reduce swelling and increase range of motion. To stay on the safe side, you should be careful when handling hot peppers when preparing the cream, and avoid using it on sensitive and damaged skin.

As our bodies age, joint pain can become a chronic. If you don’t want to take your chances with conventional pharmaceuticals, you can always turn to holistic medicine for answers and help. When musculoskeletal pain hits home, one or more of these holistic treatments can help.

Nicole Noel is a lifestyle blogger who is passionate about yoga and healthy living. She enjoys sharing her experiences and ideas on how to lead a happy and healthy life. If you want to read more from Nicole, you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.


Study Finds Opioids Reduce Effectiveness of Massage

By Pat Anson, Editor

Massage therapy significantly improves chronic low back pain, but is not as effective when patients are taking opioid pain medication, according to a new study.

Nearly 100 patients with low back pain were given a series of 10 massages designed and provided by a massage therapist. Over half experienced clinically meaningful improvements in their low back pain.

"The study can give primary care providers the confidence to tell patients with chronic low back pain to try massage, if the patients can afford to do so," said lead author Niki Munk, an assistant professor of health sciences in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Most patients showed improvement in their pain and disability after 12 weeks, but the effectiveness of massage appeared to diminish after 24 weeks of therapy.

The study also identified several characteristics in patients that made them more or less likely to experience relief from massage:

  • Adults older than 49 had better pain and disability outcomes than younger adults.
  • Patients who were taking opioids were two times less likely to experience clinically meaningful change compared to those who were not taking opioids.
  • Obese patients experienced significant improvements, but those improvements were not sustained over time.

"The fact of the matter is that chronic lower back pain is very complex and often requires a maintenance-type approach versus a short-term intervention option," said Munk.

Another inhibiting factor is cost. Patients in the study were given free massages, but in the real world massage therapy is often not covered by insurance, Medicaid and Medicare. Researchers say more studies are needed to determine just how cost-effective massage is compared to other treatments,

"Massage is an out-of-pocket cost," Munk said. "Generally, people wonder if it is worth it. Will it pay to provide massage to people for an extended period of time? Will it help avoid back surgeries, for example, that may or may not have great outcomes? These are the types of analyses that we hope will result from this study."

The study was published in the journal Pain Medicine. 

Lower back pain is the world's leading cause of disability. Over 80 percent of adults have low back pain at some point in their lives.

What Alternative Treatments Work for Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, Editor

A review of over a hundred clinical trials has found that some alternative pain therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, and massage are effective in treating chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis of the knee, migraine and headaches.

But only weak evidence was found that they might help people with fibromyalgia.

The review was conducted by scientists at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study,  published online in the Mayo Clinic Proceedingswas conducted to give patients and primary care providers better evidence on the effectiveness of non-drug treatments for chronic pain.

“One major goal for this study was to be as relevant as possible to primary care providers in the United States, who frequently see and care for patients with painful conditions. Providers need more high quality information on the evidence base for pain management tools, especially nondrug approaches,” said lead author Richard Nahin, PhD, an epidemiologist with NIH.

“Overall, the data suggest that some complementary approaches may help some patients manage, though not cure, painful health conditions.”

The scientists “found promise” in the safety and effectiveness of these treatments:

  • Acupuncture and yoga for back pain
  • Acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee
  • Massage therapy for neck pain  
  • Relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine.

Though the evidence was weaker, the researchers found that massage, spinal manipulation, and osteopathic manipulation may provide some help for back pain. Relaxation approaches and tai chi might also help some people with fibromyalgia.

Mixed or no evidence was found that glucosamine, chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids, and S-Adenosyl methionine (SAMe) are effective in treating chronic pain.

Each year Americans spend about $30 billion on alternative and so-called complimentary health treatments, even though few studies have been conducted on their effectiveness. The NIH researchers had to go back 50 years to find enough clinical studies to review. Many of the studies involved fewer than 100 people, which weakens the conclusions drawn from them. Some of the same studies were used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as evidence for its opioid prescribing guidelines, which encourage "non-pharmacological" treatments for chronic pain.

“It's important that continued research explore how these approaches actually work and whether these findings apply broadly in diverse clinical settings and patient populations," said David Shurtleff, PhD, deputy director of National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Help Pain Patients Get Access to More Treatments

By Cindy Perlin, Guest Columnist

I just started a petition on asking President Obama and Congress to give pain patients affordable access to safe, effective treatments. The petition points out that prescription painkillers, which are liberally reimbursed by health insurers, are causing addiction and death, while safer, more effective treatments are often inadequately covered or not covered at all.

The petition asks the President and members of Congress to support a Pain Treatment Parity Act that would require health insurers to cover all proven effective treatments for chronic pain on a level equal to coverage for pharmaceutical treatments. 

As I wrote in an earlier column on Pain News Network, the Act would eliminate preauthorization requirements and limits on the number of treatment sessions covered for services such as chiropractic and physical therapy; while also requiring coverage for acupuncture, biofeedback, massage, nutritional counseling, exercise programs, low level laser therapy and other safe, effective treatments.

The proposed legislation also requires physician education about these treatment modalities. Increases in fees for non-physician health care providers, who for the most part haven’t had a fee increase in over 35 years, would also be mandated.

My goal is to have over 100,000 signatures.  To find out more and to sign the petition, please click here.

Cindy Perlin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, certified biofeedback practitioner, chronic pain survivor and the author of “The Truth About Chronic Pain Treatments: The Best and Worst Strategies for Becoming Pain Free.” 

For the last 25 years Cindy has helped her clients improve their emotional and physical well-being through her private practice near Albany, New York.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Insurers Should Cover All Types of Pain Treatment

By Cindy Perlin, Guest Columnist

Many chronic pain patients who have depended on opioids to manage their pain have posted comments critical of the CDC's draft guidelines and rightfully so.  No patient who is in severe chronic pain should be required to reduce their pain medication unless and until they have been provided with access to treatment that is at least as effective as their current opioid regimen.

Efforts to reduce use of opioids have driven legitimate pain patients to use of heroin and have not stemmed the opioid abuse epidemic. In fact, addiction and overdoses have only increased. 

Preventing addiction is the key to saving lives. The best way to do this is to reduce the number of new prescriptions for opioids unnecessarily dispensed to pain patients. Fortunately, curtailing opioid prescriptions can be done without harm to pain patients because safer, more effective treatments exist.

However, significant barriers to access to alternative pain treatments exist. Financial obstacles because of lack of insurance coverage, inadequate availability of services, and lack of knowledge of alternatives by both patients and their physicians prevent patients from receiving the most appropriate care. 

A significant factor that has led to inadequate availability of many pain treatments is the fact that non-physician in-network providers who are reimbursed by health insurers have not, for the most part, received any fee increases in over 35 years; whereas physicians have received numerous increases. These providers include chiropractors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and mental health practitioners.

Availability of these services has decreased as more providers are leavingand fewer providers are entering these disciplines, because of a 65% decline in real wages owing to inflation.

To reduce these impediments to effective pain treatment, I propose a Pain Treatment Parity Act (PTPA), which would require all entities that pay for treatment of chronic pain -- including public and private insurers -- to cover all pain treatments that have credible evidence of effectiveness to the same degree that they cover pharmaceutical treatment of pain.

This includes both qualitative and quantitative limitations on care, such as equivalence in pre-treatment authorization requirements, limits on number of visits or dosage restrictions, copayment requirements, as well as equivalent fee schedules.

Provisions of the PTPA

1. All pain treatments with some credible evidence of effectiveness must be covered when provided by a licensed or certified provider. This includes any treatments with at least one well-designed randomized, controlled trial showing a significant benefit from the therapy and a good safety profile or any other reasonable evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Therapies that currently meet this standard include chiropractic, physical and occupational therapy, acupuncture, biofeedback, massage therapy, homeopathy, nutritional counseling and supplements, herbal therapy, psychotherapy, energy medicine therapy, supervised exercise programs, and multidisciplinary interventions, including coordination of services.

2. There can be no restrictions on the number of treatment visits or length of treatment for nonpharmaceutical pain treatment, unless there are similar restrictions on dosage or length of treatment for the preponderance of pharmaceutical treatments for pain.

3. Copays for visits to nonphysician pain treatment providers cannot exceed the copayment for primary care physician visits.

4. There cannot be a separate deductible for nonphysician pain treatment providers.

5. Preauthorization for visits to nonphysician pain treatment providers cannot be required unless preauthorization is required for pharmaceutical treatments for pain.

6. Medical necessity reviews cannot occur with greater frequency for nonphysician pain treatment providers than for physicians who provide pharmaceutical treatment for pain.

7. Fee schedules for in-network chiropractors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, social workers, mental health counselors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and all other nonphysician pain treatment providers must be increased by the same percentage as the average increase in fees for physicians for all specialties since 1980.

8. If an insurance plan has out-of-network benefits for medical and surgical treatments, it must also cover nonphysician out-of-network pain care providers at the same level of reimbursement.

9. All medical schools must offer a required course in pain management that covers all currently available treatments and the evidence supporting their use.

10. All physicians who treat chronic pain patients who have not completed a course in pain management in medical school must complete a 12-hour CME course about the safety and efficacy of all currently available treatments for chronic pain.

The Centers for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) should champion this or similar legislation along with its opioid prescribing guidelines.

Cindy Perlin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, certified biofeedback practitioner, chronic pain survivor and the author of “The Truth About Chronic Pain Treatments: The Best and Worst Strategies for Becoming Pain Free.” 

For the last 25 years Cindy has helped her clients improve their emotional and physical well-being through her private practice near Albany, New York.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.