Home > Health Articles > In Response to Opioid Crisis, Medicare Advantage Will Cover Therapeutic Massage in More Than 270 Plans Beginning in 2019

By Pamela Israel
Peaceful Spirit Massage & Wellness Centers

Chronic pain can be debilitating. It can take over your life and keep you from doing the things you love. And it isn’t something that only affects a few people. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 50 million Americans suffered from chronic pain in the last six months. That’s nearly one in five people. If you aren’t suffering from chronic pain yourself, you likely know someone who is.

Over the last 15-20 years, this chronic pain problem has translated into an opioid epidemic the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Let’s lay out some facts:
  • In 2017, 72,000 people died from opioid overdoses
  • About 25% of people who are prescribed opiates will misuse them
  • About 10% will develop an addiction
  • About 5% will transition from opiates to heroin
  • 80% of people who use heroin first misused a prescription opioid
Obviously, we have a very large problem with chronic pain that leads to opiate misuse and addiction. So, what is the government doing to combat this issue? The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) outlined its five-point Opioid Strategy in April of 2017. Their strategy aims to:

  • Improve access to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services in order to prevent and treat opioid addiction;
  • Make overdose-reversing drugs available to people who are likely to experience or respond to an overdose;
  • Support new research to advance our understanding of pain and addiction, develop new treatments, and identify effective public health measures that reduce opioid dependence;
  • Improve public health data reporting to improve timeliness and inform public health workers as the epidemic evolves;
  • Advance the practice of pain management to enable access to evidence-based, high-quality pain relief and reduce the use of opioids.
This last bullet point is especially important. Without providing adequate pain management, patients are likely to continue using and misusing opioid pain killers. But what does effective pain management actually look like? It will most likely be a combination of things, and body work, such as massage, can be highly effective.

Therapeutic Massage has been shown to relieve many different types of pain. In fact, the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) reported that in 2017, 89% of people who had gotten a massage in the last year agreed that it was effective in relieving their pain. Also, in a study published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, researchers found that patients with chronic pain who received massage had “significant reduction” in their pain levels. In addition, they also felt more relaxed, slept better, and had more stable emotions. In particular, massage can help relieve muscle pain associated with injury, cramping, and strain. It also helps relieve discomfort from issues like pinched nerves, nerve compression, and swelling.

How does it work? During a massage, you naturally enter a relaxed state where your blood pressure lowers, your breathing and heart rate decrease, your muscles relax, and your body produces fewer stress hormones. This relaxation response is part of what relieves pain, by way of relieving cramped or strained muscles, or through reduced stress hormone levels.

So, getting a massage can help relieve pain, and in many cases is a better alternative than opioids. But until now, most insurance companies would pay for opioid pain killers, but not massage. And since most therapeutic massages can cost in the neighborhood of $60-70 per hour (and may require more than one session), many patients have found themselves with no alternative except more prescription opioids.
But starting in 2019, more than 270 Medicare Advantage plans will begin to cover therapeutic massage as an alternative to opioid pain killers. This change in response to the national opioid crisis will affect more than 1.5 million enrollees, enabling them to choose therapeutic massage over addictive opioid pain killers. Along with other pain management techniques, such as acupuncture and chiropractic care, massage can have a dramatic effect on pain. And when used in conjunction with the HHS’s other points in the Opioid Strategy, patients will have an arsenal of weapons with which to fight their pain.


Adams, R., White, B., and Beckett, C. “The Effects of Massage Therapy on Pain Management in the Acute Care Setting.” International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. March 17, 2010.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091428/

Berezow, Alex. “Who Is Hurting? The Prevalence of Chronic Pain In America.” American Council on Science and Health. September 24, 2018. https://www.acsh.org/news/2018/09/14/who-hurting-prevalence-chronic-pain-america-13407

“CMS Announces Up to 270 Medicare Advantage Plans Will Include Massage Therapy in 2019.” American Massage Therapy Association. November 28, 2018. https://www.amtamassage.org/articles/1/News/detail/3900/cms-announces-up-to-270-medicare-advantage-plans-will-include-massage-therapy-in-2019

Collins, Francis. Department of Health and Human Services. “The Federal Response to the Opioid Crisis.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. October 5, 2017. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2017/federal-response-to-opioid-crisis

“Opioid Overdose Crisis.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Revised March 2018. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis