Medicare may soon cover acupuncture treatments for lower back pain. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is studying the ancient therapy as part of its move to increase alternatives to opioid painkillers for certain common conditions.

Lower back pain is the leading reason for opioid prescribing among Medicare recipients, CMS reports. The agency, along with other government entities, is launching studies to determine how adults 65 years of age and older respond to acupuncture as an alternative treatment option. Proposed coverage is currently limited to Medicare patients who are enrolled in approved clinical trials. 

In a statement, CMS acknowledged growing evidence for acupuncture’s effectiveness, but notes that questions remain. “Defeating our country’s epidemic of opioid addiction requires identifying all possible ways to treat the very real problem of chronic pain, and this proposal would provide patients with new options while expanding our scientific understanding of alternative approaches to pain,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Acupuncture is a treatment that originated in China. Practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.

Read the CMS proposal