Chronic Pain Relief Checklist: 9 Places to Look for Affordable, Effective, Low-Risk Treatments
Evidence-based pain management strategies can be expensive and hard to find. Tap these resources in your search for drug-free pain relievers with the most science behind them.
Many Americans live with pain. Indeed, according to a February 2022 article in the journal Pain,?50.2 million people in the United States reported experiencing pain on most days or every day. If you’re one of them, you know the many struggles of coping with persistent pain. Whether it’s an aching back, joint pain, headaches, an injury, or pain from other sources, prolonged discomfort can affect both your physical and psychological well-being.
Prescription drugs are often a go-to treatment for people with chronic pain, but many are ineffective, cause side effects, or lead to addiction. The shortage of effective mainstream medical treatments might leave you searching for alternatives. That’s where integrative medicine comes into play.
“‘Integrative’ is really just an umbrella term, which means anything that there’s evidence for, whether it’s Western medicine or Eastern medicine, or something in between,” explains Zachary Mulvihill, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at Weil Cornell Medicine in New York City.
While there are several evidence-informed options, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), when it comes to non-drug therapies for chronic pain, these interventions can be difficult to find or expensive to pursue if insurance doesn’t cover it. But don’t give up if you’re interested in trying an integrative modality.
“It’s important for people to get these services because this stuff works,” says Dr. Mulvihill, stressing the importance of good care. “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything, and it’s invaluable.”
While there’s no one size fits all for pain relief, here are nine places to look for affordable complementary therapies and integrative medicine approaches.
1. Your Own Doctor’s Office
Mulvihill says the first stop in your integrative journey should be at your primary care doctor’s office.
“Don’t skip the traditional steps,” he says. “There’s been countless times that I’ve picked up on a serious medical condition that was missed, something that could have and should have been treated differently.”
Your home-base doctor may also provide recommendations or referrals for complementary therapies for your pain.
2. Online Databases
You might want to check online reviews for practitioners who are more holistically minded.
Zocdoc is a resource that helps you locate physicians in your area who accept your insurance coverage. Find other databases listed in these related articles:
- What Are Alternative, Complementary, and Integrative Health Approaches?
- Find an Integrated Medicine Doctor for Chronic Pain
3. Specialized Clinics and Centers
After getting clearance from your primary care doctor, you’ll start the process of searching for centers that provide an integrative medicine approach.
“There is not an easily accessible and reliable resource for what’s available in most areas,” says Susan P. Blackford, MD, an internal medicine doctor at Duke Integrative Medicine Center in Durham, North Carolina. “Most people ask friends or family for recommendations or do an internet search.”
“Finding someone at all is hard, especially finding someone who takes insurance,” adds Mulvihill. “Very few integrative and alternative providers take insurance at all, period.”
Mulvihill says he’s fortunate to work at a comprehensive center that offers acupuncture, massage, nutrition, mindfulness, therapy, yoga, and more all in one place and accepts insurance.
“But even then, we don’t take all insurances, and not all insurances will cover all of our services,” he says.
“There is often a lack of clarity of what is and isn't covered, for what diagnosis, by what type of provider and for how many visits, and that varies from insurance to insurance and often between plans within one company,” says Dr. Blackford.
4. Online Databases From Reputable Medical Organizations
When looking for an integrative doctor, Mulvihill suggests searching the University of Arizona’s database to find someone who graduated from the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine — a program that’s considered the gold standard in integrative training. Other options include the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM)?and The?Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine & Health?(ACIMH)
You can also search on the Institute for Functional Medicine’s site for providers who are trained in “functional medicine,” which has similarities to integrative medicine, but has more of a biological testing focus.
5. Your Health Insurance Plan
If you understand your insurance plan and how to take advantage of it, you'll have an easier time saving money on integrative services.
“If you have insurance coverage, milk your insurance,” says Mulvihill.
First, set up an online account, so you can see what your plan covers. If the benefits aren’t clear, you might want to call with questions about the treatment you wish to receive. For example, you might ask:
- Do I have coverage for this treatment?
- If so, how many visits are covered?
- Are all conditions covered or only certain conditions?
- Do you require a referral?
- What are the copays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses?
Coverage for integrative medicine varies greatly depending on the company, policy, and other factors.
According to the NIH, Americans spend $14.7 billion out-of-pocket for visits to complementary and integrative practitioners each year.
“On the west coast, many of these services are covered by insurance,” says Blackford. “The east coast has been slower to embrace these modalities. That is, thankfully, starting to change.”
In some cases, if your care provider doesn’t take your insurance plan, your insurance company may offer partial reimbursements for particular treatments, but this depends greatly on your coverage and the service provided.
“In many centers like ours, the cost is published and easy to find so that there is no ambiguity. Patients are then given receipts so that they can obtain reimbursement if offered,” says Blackford.
6. A Health Savings Account
Mulvihill says you might want to consider setting up your health insurance account as a health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA).
“If you do this, you can use your health spending dollars on services that wouldn’t be covered anyway, like acupuncture, massage, and supplements, and after you hit your deductible, most of your care will be covered,” he explains.
7. Sympathetic Providers
Mulvihill says his center uses helpful strategies for patients with insurance hardships.
“There are workarounds for many common billing issues. For example, I supervise patients who want to see our nutritionist or acupuncturist, but don’t have insurance coverage,” he says. “This is called a ‘linked visit.’ The bills go under me because I participate in the patient’s insurance.”
8. Discounts From Your Provider’s Center
If you have to pay for services out-of-pocket, ask for a discount up front. Some centers might also have a sliding scale based on income. Or they will allow you to set up a payment plan.
9. Support Groups
Connecting with others and talking about your struggles can be healing. Support groups, both online and in-person, allow people with chronic pain to share their stories with others and learn ways to better cope with daily challenges. What’s more, these groups can be, potentially, good places to get recommendations about providers, centers, and services relevant to the type of pain you experience.
You may be able to locate support groups via social media pages or nonprofit organizations.
There are many reputable resources for finding support groups.
- The American Chronic Pain Association
- U.S. Pain Foundation
- Practical Pain Management
- Pain Connection
- International Pain Foundation
- The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy
- National Fibromyalgia Association
- Arthritis Foundation
Get the Most Proven Pain Relievers for the Least Amount of Money
Here are individualized tips for navigating some of the best evidence-supported modalities for easing chronic pain.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): How to Find Deals and Discounts
In addition to helping with general wellness, MBSR can also be beneficial for coping with chronic pain. This stress reduction program teaches patients how to use mindfulness practices, as well as hatha yoga and group support, to support their well-being.
Costs of MBSR vary, but they usually aren’t covered by health insurance.
“Mindfulness meditation is a deceptively simple yet effective and inexpensive way to manage chronic pain,” says Blackford. “There are many free and inexpensive apps to get you started.”
You can locate an MBSR program at local medical centers or integrative health departments at universities.
Here are some ways to find more affordable MBSR treatments:
- Ask about scholarships (some centers offer them)
- Listen to a podcast or read a book to learn how to implement MBSR skills
- Try a mindfulness app, such as Headspace or Calm.
- Check out meditation centers. Mindfulness is practiced in the “insight” and “Zen” meditation lineages and centers often offer introductions to mindfulness that can have similarities to MBSR with less cost or by donation.
Physical Therapy: How to Find Deals and Discounts
Many insurance plans, including Medicare and workers’ compensation, will cover the cost of physical therapy services that are considered medically necessary. PT is considered part of mainstream medicine. However, this coverage varies and sometimes requires you to meet your deductible, depending on your plan.
You might be able to save money by undergoing virtual physical therapy, in which a therapist shows you how to perform the exercises via video conferencing. You can also negotiate fees with your therapy center for a better price.
Physical therapists often practice in hospitals, pain clinics, or outpatient centers. The American Physical Therapy Association provides a directory to help you locate physical therapists in your area.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Advice for Seeking Out Deals and Discounts
With CBT, a specially trained professional helps you recognize how your own thoughts and emotions affect your behavior, so you can change unhelpful patterns.
“I’m of the school of thought that everyone should see a therapist, especially if you’re dealing with chronic pain,” says Mulvihill.
Most insurance companies will cover the cost of mental health therapy, but some will not cover all types of therapy.
If you must pay out of pocket, consider these options:
- Try group CBT or a virtual therapy session
- Locate a federally funded health center that offers discounted rates
- Book a lower-cost session with a graduate student at a college or university
The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) and the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies provide directories on their sites to help you find therapists in your area.
Additionally, Headway is a popular source for finding mental health practitioners.
Chiropractic Therapy: Where to Find Deals and Discounts
People with chronic pain often turn to chiropractic therapy to relieve their discomfort. This treatment involves adjusting or manipulating the spine or other parts of the body believed to correct alignment and lead to improved function.
While many insurance plans cover chiropractic care, out-of-pocket costs can vary, depending on the policy and the provider you see.
If your practitioner doesn’t accept your insurance, you may be able to use money from your HSA or FSA for chiropractic services.
You also might want to shop around, as some chiropractors charge a lot more than others.
The American Chiropractic Association offers a tool to help you find a chiropractor near you.
Biofeedback: Where to Find Deals and Discounts
Biofeedback uses electrical sensors to measure different functions in the body, so you can identify how you respond to pain and develop strategies to target those reactions.
You can find a biofeedback practitioner at doctor’s offices, local medical facilities, or integrative health centers. Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA) offers an interactive feature that lets you search for professionals in your area.
Some insurance plans cover biofeedback, while others don’t.
If seeing a biofeedback specialist is too pricey, here are some alternatives:
- Purchase a consumer wearable device, such as the HeartMath
- Use an app, such as Genius Insight Biofeedback
It’s important to know that consumer products may not be as accurate or effective as professionally guided biofeedback therapy.
Acupuncture: Where to Find Deals and Discounts
Though many health insurance companies don’t cover acupuncture, in January 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said it would cover the treatment for Medicare patients with chronic low back pain.
If you’re thinking about trying acupuncture, shop around for a good price, as costs vary depending on the practice. Also, contact local training schools to see if they offer discounted rates.
Mulvihill says his center provides group acupuncture at a lower cost. “You might have a room where 10 people are treated at the same time,” he explains.
You can find an acupuncturist via the directory provided by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians or on the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s (NCCAOM) directory.
Qigong or Tai Chi: Where to Find Deals and Discounts
Qigong and tai chi are two ancient movement and meditation practices that can offer pain relief. Some insurance and Medicare plans cover the cost, but others do not.
Check with your local senior center, rec center, or health club, as many offer discounted or free classes.
There are also plenty of online resources, books, and videos to help you practice qigong or tai chi at home on your own. Virtual classes might also be a more affordable alternative.
Search for a registered tai chi instructor on the Tai Chi for Health Institute’s directory.
“It is helpful to look for a practitioner that has experience working with medical issues such as osteoporosis and joint disease so that the recommendations are safe,” says Blackford.
Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT): Where to Find Deals and Discounts
Pain reprocessing therapy can help people rewire pathways in their brain to better manage chronic pain.
Health insurance companies may cover some of the cost, but you should check with your plan.
To save money, you might be able to negotiate a fee directly with your therapy center. Also, get a quote from a few centers, as some may be more expensive than others. Apps like Curable also offer access to PRT exercises that you can perform at home.
The Pain Reprocessing Therapy Center offers a clinician directory to help you locate practitioners.
Practical Advice for Accessing Effective, Low Risk Treatments
A multidisciplinary approach that incorporates various integrative techniques is likely the best strategy for managing chronic pain, experts say.
While finding and paying for these integrative medicine modalities may be challenging, it could also be worthwhile.
“It might also be helpful to reflect on what you want to spend your resources on, mediations that provide temporary relief, or a modality that can make a meaningful change,” says Blackford. “Having the choice of other modalities to complement the conventional options can only enhance our care.”