The doctor is here. Yogi is there too.
Health care is undergoing a dramatic shift, with more than one-third of U.S. adults now supplementing or replacing mainstream medical care with acupuncture, meditation, yoga and other treatments long considered alternative.
According to research published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 37% of adult pain patients will receive non-traditional medical care by 2022, a significant increase from 19% in 2002. Driving factors for this change include increased insurance reimbursement for clinical alternatives, more scientific evidence of their effectiveness, and increased patient acceptance.
“It’s become part of American culture,” said the paper’s lead author, Richard Nahin, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health. “We’re talking about general health, stress management, sleep, energy, immune health uses.”
and for pain management. The use of yoga to manage pain rose from 11% in 2002 to 29% in 2022, an increase that Dr. Nahin said partly reflects patients’ efforts to find alternatives to opioids, as well as the influence of the media and social media.
“It’s very much in the public domain,” he said. “People hear about acupuncture, meditation, yoga. They start learning about it.”
The change affects doctors, too. Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, said a growing body of research has validated alternative treatments, giving even traditional clinics like Stanford’s more mind-body therapies and other nondrug tools. Young people in particular have become more receptive to these ideas, he said, whereas previous generations of patients may have considered these options too far away.
“Our parents and grandparents would look at them and say, what, are you kidding me?? “
At the same time, Dr. McKee said, the growing prominence of these treatments can be a “double-edged sword” because they don’t always provide the relief they are marketed for.
“My advice to people as they pursue this goal is to try to do these things,” he said. “But if it doesn’t provide long-lasting benefits, don’t continue to do it.”
Data for the JAMA article come from the 2002, 2012 and 2022 National Health Interview Surveys, which were conducted in person and by phone. The researchers used the data to evaluate the use of seven complementary health care methods: acupuncture, chiropractic, guided imagery, massage therapy, meditation, naturopathy and yoga.
Meditation as a health therapy is on the rise, with the proportion of U.S. adults meditating jumping from around 7.5% 20 years ago to around 17% by 2022. Low cost is a factor, Dr. Nyhan said: “How much does meditation and yoga cost?” Prices for such activities vary widely, depending on whether they are done at home or in a class.
For some, other options may seem superior. Jee Kim began going down the traditional medicine path in 2022 while struggling with insomnia and separation anxiety. His primary care physician in Boulder, Colorado, prescribed Mr. King’s initial medication but found it had intolerable side effects.
“I took yoga and meditation seriously,” he said, eventually finding a better solution. “I tried the pharmaceutical route, but I wanted tools I could come back to. I knew this wouldn’t be my last difficult life transition.”
Mr. King, 49, a political consultant and former college tennis player who still plays avidly, also believes yoga helps avoid injuries so much that he himself serves as an occasional yoga instructor. “It’s a pillar of my physical and mental health, but also at work,” he said.
“Most of my patients use complementary interventions like stress management,” said Dr. Jennifer Rhodes, a Boulder psychiatrist who specializes in treating women experiencing hormonal changes, referring to Treatments under investigation.
She says she accepts the concept, but warns that medication is also important.
“Get acupuncture and massage,” she said. “But it’s unfair to ask people who are severely depressed or anxious and unable to work until their nervous system calms down.”