Really? Acupuncture for chronic back Pain?
If you doubt it, the following announcement might amaze you:
In response to the U.S. opioid crisis, HHS is focused on preventing opioid use disorder and providing more evidence-based non-pharmacologic treatment options for chronic pain. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and that National Institutes of Health (NIH) are collaborating in this effort. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality published a systematic review of noninvasive, nonpharmacological treatment for chronic pain in June 2018 (https://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/sites/default/files/cer-209-evidence-summary-non-pharma-chronic-pain.pdf). This review included assessment of several nonpharmacological interventions, including exercise, acupuncture, spinal manipulation, and multidisciplinary rehabilitation for CLBP. The NIH recently issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement for interested parties to apply to conduct an efficient, large-scale pragmatic trial to evaluate the impact of, and strategies to best implement, acupuncture treatment of older adults (65 years and older) with chronic low back pain. The announcement can be found here: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-AT-19-005.html.
CMS is opening this national coverage analysis (NCA) to complete a thorough review of the evidence to determine if acupuncture for CLBP is reasonable and necessary under the Medicare program. CMS is soliciting public comment on this topic. We are particularly interested in comments that include scientific evidence and discuss appropriate clinicians and training requirements to provide acupuncture that improves health outcomes. In addition, for commenters recommending Coverage with Evidence Development, we are interested in comments related to appropriate outcomes and study designs. While CMS has conducted previous national coverage analyses on acupuncture, the scope of this current review is limited to acupuncture for chronic low back pain.
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The evidence whether acupuncture is effective for chronic back pain is far from clear. NICE recently stated that it no longer recommends acupuncture because the evidence is not strong. Others have shown that acupuncture is superior to sham as well as no acupuncture control for back pain, with differences between groups close to .5 SDs compared with no acupuncture control, and close to .2 SDs compared with sham. A further systematic review stated that acupuncture provides a short-term clinically relevant effect when compared with a waiting list control or when acupuncture is added to another intervention.Yet another systematic review found that acupuncture for chronic nonspecific low back pain was associated with significantly lower pain intensity than placebo but only immediately post-treatment (VAS: -0.59, 95 percent CI: -0.93, -0.25). However, acupuncture was not different from placebo in post-treatment disability, pain medication intake, or global improvement in chronic nonspecific low back pain. Acupuncture did not differ from sham-acupuncture in reducing chronic non-specific neck pain immediately after treatment (VAS: 0.24, 95 percent CI: -1.20, 0.73). Acupuncture was superior to no treatment in improving pain intensity (VAS: -1.19, 95 percent CI: 95 percent CI: -2.17, -0.21), disability (PDI), functioning (HFAQ), well-being (SF-36), and range of mobility (extension, flexion), immediately after the treatment. In general, trials that applied sham-acupuncture tended to produce negative results (i.e., statistically non-significant) compared to trials that applied other types of placebo (e.g., TENS, medication, laser). Results regarding comparisons with other active treatments (pain medication, mobilization, laser therapy) were less consistent Acupuncture was more cost-effective compared to usual care or no treatment for patients with chronic back pain.
My reading of these and other papers is that acupuncture might have a small and probably not clinically relevant effects which is hard to differentiate from bias and confounding.
Is this enough for reimbursement from the public purse?
In my view, the answer is no.
I am sure that others will have different interpretations of the published evidence. If so, you have until 14 February to write to the CMS.