This article reports that Medicare is exploring whether to pay for acupuncture. Coverage would be for chronic low-back pain only. In its request for comments on acupuncture, the Department of Health and Human Services said that “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 said it hopes “to determine if acupuncture for [chronic low-back pain] is reasonable and necessary under the Medicare program.” A proposal is due by July 15, with a final decision by Oct. 13.
Medicare coverage “is long overdue,” said Tony Y. Chon, director of integrative medicine and health at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. “The opioid epidemic is going to be the momentum that’s really needed to push not just acupuncture but other kinds of non-pharmacological interventions to the forefront.”
Some proponents also note that acupuncture is one of the safest interventions available for pain — though some accidents have been reported. Even if it works only for some people, they argue, there is little harm in trying it when other options are not effective.
However, research shows that acupuncture is little more effective than placebo in many cases. When the government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reviewed research on a wide range of therapies for chronic pain in 2018, it found the “strength of evidence” that acupuncture works for chronic low-back pain is “low.”
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of NIH, says “research suggests that acupuncture can help manage certain pain conditions, but evidence about its value for other health issues is uncertain.”
Critics go further, noting that hundreds of years of anatomical studies have not found evidence of the points in the body linked to the “energy channels” that acupuncture claims to be stimulating to provide pain relief. They contend that acupuncture shows all the signs of the placebo effect, with providers and recipients who believe it works and the elaborate ritual of placing the needles in specially selected spots. “The whole thing is a big scam,” said Steven Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at the Yale School of Medicine and editor of the “Science-Based Medicine” website. “The only honest interpretation of the data is that acupuncture is a theatrical placebo.” Novella said that the efficacy attributed to acupuncture could easily be explained by various research biases and that no drug would be allowed on the market based on that level of proof. “We never get that threshold of evidence that you need in medicine, where you get that persistent effect, and it’s replicable” across numerous studies, he said.
The evidence is indeed far from clear. NICE 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.
The recent Lancet papers excited alternative therapists and their organisations who quickly jumped on the LBP bandwagon. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence. I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also want to caution that things are complex.
I have therefore copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:
|EFFECTIVENESS ACUTE LBP||EFFECTIVENESS PERSISTENT LBP||RISKS||COSTS||RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE|
|Advice to stay active||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Education||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Superficial heat||+/-||Ie||Very minor||Low to medium||Positive (aLBP)|
|Exercise||Limited||+/-, routine||Very minor||Low||Positive (pLBP)|
|CBT||Limited||+/-, routine||None||Low to medium||Positive (pLBP)|
|Rehab||Ie||+/-||Minor||Medium to high||Questionable|
Routine = consider for routine use
+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment
Ie = insufficient evidence
Limited = limited use in selected patients
vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects
sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record
aLBP = acute low back pain
So, should Medicare pay for acupuncture or any other SCAM? Please advise!