A Promising Step for Pain Patients

Medicare beneficiaries with low back pain could soon have a new treatment option available: acupuncture.  

The technique involves “needling” – the insertion of needles – or “non-needling” techniques on a certain area of the body.  Acupuncture “may potentially decrease the need for, and the side effects of, assorted medications” used to treat chronic lower back pain, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  

Now, CMS is poised to expand coverage of the ancient pain-relieving technique in select federally funded clinical trials.

“Expanding access to acupuncture, even in a trial capacity, is a promising step forward for patients in pain,” explained Mike Walsh of the Alliance for Balanced Pain Management in a letter of support for the proposed policy. “Ensuring the availability of integrated, comprehensive care through a wide range of medications and treatments, including acupuncture, gives patients the greatest opportunity to follow a balanced approach to pain management,” he continued.

Balanced pain management focuses on developing an individualized, multi-pronged approach to treating pain.  Addressing pain comprehensively can include a combination of prescription and over-the-counter medicines along with physical or occupational therapy, psychological counseling and complementary approaches.  It may also help patients avoid unnecessary exposure to opioids, which can present the risk of addiction.  

Allowing acupuncture gives Medicare beneficiaries – and the clinicians treating them – yet another non-pharmacologic treatment option.

While CMS’ proposed policy directly applies only to Medicare patients, it could set an example for coverage in other settings.  Commercial and Medicaid plans, for example, often base their decisions on Medicare’s precedent. Covering acupuncture has “broad significance,” as the Alliance for Balanced Pain Management’s letter points out. 

CMS will accept public comments until August 14.


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