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MP 2.01.35 Paraspinal Surface Electromyography (SEMG) to Evaluate and Monitor Back Pain

Medical Policy    
Original Policy Date
Last Review Status/Date
Reviewed with literature search/9:2013
  Return to Medical Policy Index


Our medical policies are designed for informational purposes only and are not an authorization, or an explanation of benefits, or a contract.  Receipt of benefits is subject to satisfaction of all terms and conditions of the coverage.  Medical technology is constantly changing, and we reserve the right to review and update our policies periodically.



Surface electromyography (SEMG), a noninvasive procedure that records the summation of muscle electrical activity, has been investigated as a technique to evaluate the physiologic functioning of the back. In addition, this procedure has been studied as a technique to evaluate abnormal patterns of electrical activity in the paraspinal muscles in patients with back pain symptoms, such as spasm, tenderness, limited range of motion (ROM), or postural disorders.


Identifying the pathogenesis of back pain is a challenging task, in part due to the complex anatomy of the back, which includes vertebrae, intervertebral discs, facet joints, spinal nerve roots, and numerous muscles. For example, back pain may be related to osteoarthritis, disc disease, subluxation, or muscular pathology, such as muscle strain or spasm. Moreover, due to referred pain patterns, the location of the pain may not be anatomically related to the pathogenesis of the pain. For example, buttock or leg pain may be related to pathology in the spine. In addition to the diagnostic challenges of back pain is the natural history of acute back pain. The majority of cases of acute low back pain will resolve with conservative therapy, such as physical therapy, and continuing normal activities within limits permitted by the pain. Thus, initial imaging or other diagnostic testing is generally not recommended unless “red flag” warning signs are present or the pain persists for longer than 4-6 weeks. Red flag findings include significant trauma, history of cancer, unrelenting night pain, fevers or chills, and progressive motor or sensory deficits.

Aside from physical examination, diagnostic tests include imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), designed to identify pathology (e.g., bulging discs) or tests such as discography to localize the abnormality by reproducing the pain syndrome. However, due to their lack of specificity, all diagnostic tests must be carefully interpreted in the context of the clinical picture. For example, 5% of asymptomatic patients will have bulging discs as identified by MRI. Therefore, the presence of a bulging disc may only be clinically significant if well correlated with symptoms. Assessment of the musculature may focus on ROM or strength exercises.

In contrast to anatomic imaging, SEMG, which records the summation of muscle activity from groups of muscles, has been investigated as a technique to evaluate the physiologic functioning of the back. A noninvasive procedure, SEMG is contrasted with needle electromyography, an invasive procedure in which the electrical activity of individual muscles is recorded. Paraspinal SEMG, also referred to as paraspinal EMG scanning, has been explored as a technique to evaluate abnormal patterns of electrical activity in the paraspinal muscles in patients with back pain symptoms such as spasm, tenderness, limited ROM, or postural disorders. The technique is performed using 1 or an array of electrodes placed on the skin surface, with recordings made at rest, in various positions, or after a series of exercises. Recordings can also be made by using a handheld device, which is applied to the skin at different sites. Electrical activity can be assessed by computer analysis of the frequency spectrum (i.e., spectral analysis), amplitude, or root mean square of the electrical action potentials. In particular, spectral analysis that focuses on the median frequency has been used to assess paraspinal muscle fatigue during isometric endurance exercises. Paraspinal SEMG has been researched as a technique to establish the etiology of back pain and also has been used to monitor the response to therapy and establish physical activity limits, such as assessing capacity to lift heavy objects or ability to return to work.

Paraspinal SEMG is an office-based procedure that may be most commonly used by physiatrists or chiropractors. The following clinical applications of the paraspinal SEMG have been proposed:

  • clarification of a diagnosis (i.e., muscle, joint, or disc disease)
  • selection of a course of medical therapy
  • selection of a type of physical therapy
  • preoperative evaluation
  • postoperative rehabilitation
  • follow-up of acute low back pain
  • evaluation of exacerbation of chronic low back pain
  • evaluation of pain management treatment techniques

Regulatory Status

SEMG devices approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include those that use a single electrode or a fixed array of multiple surface electrodes.

Several FDA-approved devices combine surface EMG along the spine with other types of monitors. For example, in 2007, the Insight Discovery (Fasstech; Burlington, MA) was cleared for marketing through the 510(k) process. The device contains 6 sensor types, 1 of which is surface EMG. The indications include measuring bilateral differences in surface EMG along the spine and measuring surface EMG along the spine during functional tasks. (Earlier Insight models had fewer sensor types.)




Paraspinal surface electromyography (SEMG) is considered investigational as a technique to diagnose or monitor back pain.

Policy Guidelines 

There is no specific CPT code for surface electromyography (SEMG) (other than 96002, dynamic surface electromyography, during walking or other functional activities, 1–12 muscles, which is part of the CPT coding for motion analysis). Existing codes for EMG (95860-95872) explicitly describe needle EMG, in which a needle is inserted into an individual muscle. Therefore, these codes do not describe surface EMG.

One of the following nonspecific CPT codes might be used:

95999: Unlisted neurological or neuromuscular diagnostic procedure

97799: Unlisted physical medicine/rehabilitation service or procedure

99199: Unlisted special service, procedure, or report

There is a HCPCS code that is specific to surface EMG (S3900).


Benefit Application
BlueCard/National Account Issues 

  • Some plans have reported that this technology has been billed using CPT code 95860-95872, which is an incorrect code range that addresses the use of needle, not surface electromyography (SEMG).
  • Some plans may perform spot audits of claims for needle electromyography (EMG) to determine whether they represent SEMG.
  • Some plans may have notified their providers that use of SEMG would be considered part of the evaluation and management of the patient and thus not coded separately. 

State or federal mandates (e.g., FEP) may dictate that all FDA-approved devices may not be considered investigational, and thus these devices may be assessed only on the basis of their medical necessity.


This policy was originally created in 2000 and was updated regularly with searches of the MEDLINE database. The most recent literature search was performed for the period September 2012 through July 25, 2013. Following is a summary of the key literature to date:

Surface electromyography (SEMG) has been used as a research tool to evaluate the performance of paraspinal muscles in patients with back pain and to further understand the etiology of low back pain. (1-4) Preliminary research has also been performed on which SEMG parameters best differentiate between individuals with and without back pain. (5, 6) However, validation of its use as a clinical diagnostic technique involves a sequential 3-step procedure as follows:

1. Technical performance of a device is typically assessed by studies that compare test measurements with a gold standard and those that compare results taken with the same device on different occasions (test-retest).

2. Diagnostic performance is evaluated by the ability of a test to accurately diagnose a clinical condition in comparison with the gold standard. The sensitivity of a test is the ability to detect a disease when the condition is present (true-positive), while specificity indicates the ability to detect patients who are suspected of disease but who do not have the condition (true-negative). Evaluation of diagnostic performance, therefore, requires independent assessment by the 2 methods in a population of patients who are suspected of disease but who do not all have the disease.

3. Evidence related to improvement of clinical outcomes with use of this testing assesses the data linking use of a test to changes in health outcomes (clinical utility). While in some cases, tests can be evaluated adequately using technical and diagnostic performance, when a test identifies a new or different group of patients with a disease; randomized trials are needed to demonstrate impact of the test on the net health outcome.

The following discussion focuses on these three steps as they apply to SEMG.

Technical performance

Several studies using different SEMG devices have suggested that paraspinal SEMG, in general, is a reliable technique, based on coefficients of variation or test-retest studies. (1, 7) No studies were identified that compared the performance of SEMG to a gold standard reference test.

Diagnostic performance

No articles that compare the results of SEMG (which tests groups of muscles) with needle electromyography (which tests individual muscles) for diagnosing any specific muscle pathology were identified in literature searches. However, the pathology of individual muscles (i.e., radiculopathy, neuropathy, etc.) may represent a different process than the pathology of muscle groups (i.e., muscle strain, spasm, etc.), and thus SEMG may be considered by its advocates as a unique test for which there is currently no gold standard. Nevertheless, even if one accepts this premise, there are inadequate data to evaluate the diagnostic performance of SEMG. For example, no articles were identified in the published peer-reviewed literature that established definitions of normal or abnormal SEMG. In some instances, asymmetrical electrical activity may have been used to define abnormality; results may be compared to a “normative data base.” However, there was no published literature defining what degree of asymmetry would constitute abnormality or how a normative database was established. (8)

In the absence of a gold standard diagnostic test, correlation with the clinical symptoms and physical exam is critical. De Luca has published a series of studies investigating a type of SEMG called the Back Analysis System (BAS), consisting of surface electrodes and other components to measure the electrical activity of muscles during isometric exercises designed to produce muscle fatigue. (2) Using physical exam and clinical history as a gold standard, the author found that BAS was able to accurately identify control and back pain patients 84% and 91% of the time, respectively, with the values increasing to 100% in some populations of patients. (Accuracy is the sum of true-positive and true-negative results.) However, these studies were not designed as a clinical diagnostic tool per se but were intended to investigate the etiology of back pain and to investigate muscular fatigue patterns in patients with and without back pain.

A 2010 study from Hong Kong used a different type of analysis of SEMG findings called dynamic topography. (9) Using SEMG, they evaluated 20 healthy men and 15 men with low-back pain and found different dynamic topography e.g., a more symmetric pattern in healthy controls. After physical therapy, the dynamic topography images of back pain patients were more similar to the healthy controls on some of the parameters that were assessed. However, there are no data that analyze how changes in the SEMG correlate to clinical response, whether a clinical response in the face of persisting SEMG abnormalities suggests ongoing pathology, or whether persistent symptoms in the face of a normal SEMG represent malingering.

Improvement of clinical outcomes

Several articles describe the use of SEMG as an aid in classifying low back pain. (10-12) Much of the research in this application has focused on the use of spectral analysis to assess muscle fatigability. However, it is unclear how this information may be used in the management of the patient. For example, while the innovators of the BAS system indicate that SEMG can suggest potential therapies by distinguishing deconditioning from muscle inhibition secondary to pain-related behavior, (12) no clinical studies describe the use of SEMG in suggesting therapy. In another application of SEMG, Arena and colleagues assessed the amplitude of SEMG recordings as a measure of paraspinal muscle tension in 66 patients and reported that the degree of muscle tension did not correlate with pain levels. These findings raised questions about the role of biofeedback, muscle relaxants, or other therapies designed to reduce muscle tension. (13)

While SEMG may be used to objectively document muscle spasm or other muscular abnormalities, it is unclear how such objective documentation would supplant or enhance clinical evaluation, or how this information would be used to alter the treatment plan. Part of the difficulty in clinical interpretation isunderstanding to what extent the SEMG abnormalities are primary or secondary. In addition, as noted in the Background section, no specific workup is recommended for acute low back pain without warning signs.

There are no data regarding the final health outcome. For example, SEMG has been proposed as a technique to differentiate muscle spasm from muscle contracture, with muscle spasm treated with relaxation therapy and contracture treated with stretching exercises. However, there are no data to validate that such treatment suggested by SEMG results in improved outcomes. (14, 15)

A review of spinal muscle evaluation in low back pain patients, published in 2007, indicates that the validity of SEMG remains controversial. (16) The authors note that although many studies show increased fatigability of the paraspinal muscles in patients with low back pain, it is not known whether these changes are causes or consequences of the low back pain. Also, “the considerable inter-individual variability and the absence of normative data complicate the description of normal or abnormal profiles, thereby limiting the diagnostic usefulness of SEMG.”


There are inadequate data on the technical and diagnostic performance of paraspinal surface electromyography (SEMG) compared to a gold standard reference test. Moreover, there is insufficient evidence regarding how findings from paraspinal SEMG impact patient management and/or how use of the test improves health outcomes. Thus, paraspinal surface electromyography for diagnosing and monitoring back pain is considered investigational.

Practice Guidelines and Position Statements

In a 2011 guideline from the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), surface electromyography is not recommended as a technique for diagnosing low back disorders due to insufficient evidence of efficacy. (17)

Medicare National Coverage

No national coverage determination.



  1. Cram JR, Lloyd J, Cahn TS. The reliability of EMG muscle scanning. Int J Psychosom 1994; 41(4-Jan):41-5.
  2. De Luca CJ. Use of the surface EMG signal for performance evaluation of back muscles. Muscle Nerve 1993; 16(2):210-6.
  3. Jones SL, Hitt JR, Desarno MJ et al. Individuals with non-specific low back pain in an active episode demonstrate temporally altered torque responses and direction-specific enhanced muscle activity following unexpected balance perturbations. Exp Brain Res 2012; 221(4):413-26.
  4. Sheeran L, Sparkes V, Caterson B et al. Spinal position sense and trunk muscle activity during sitting and standing in nonspecific chronic low back pain: classification analysis. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 2012; 37(8):E486-95.
  5. Hanada EY, Johnson M, Hubley-Kozey C. A comparison of trunk muscle activation amplitudes during gait in older adults with and without chronic low back pain. PM R 2011; 3(10):920-8.
  6. Neblett R, Brede E, Mayer TG et al. What is the best surface EMG measure of lumbar flexion-relaxation for distinguishing chronic low back pain patients from pain-free controls? Clin J Pain 2013; 29(4):334-40.
  7. Ahern DK, Follick MJ, Council JR et al. Reliability of lumbar paravertebral EMG assessment in chronic low back pain. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1986; 67(10):762-5.
  8. Gentempo P, Kent C. Establishing medical necessity for paraspinal EMG scanning. Chiropractic: J Chiropractic Res Clin Invest 1990; 3(1):22-5.
  9. Hu Y, Siu SH, Mak JN et al. Lumbar muscle electromyographic dynamic topography during flexion-extension. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2010; 20(2):246-55.
  10. Humphrey AR, Nargol AV, Jones AP et al. The value of electromyography of the lumbar paraspinal muscles in discriminating between chronic-low-back-pain sufferers and normal subjects. Eur Spine J 2005; 14(2):175-84.
  11. Peach JP, McGill SM. Classification of low back pain with the use of spectral electromyogram parameters. Spine 1998; 23(10):1117-23.
  12. Roy SH, Oddsson LI. Classification of paraspinal muscle impairments by surface electromyography. Phys Ther 1998; 78(8):838-51.
  13. Arena JG, Sherman RA, Bruno GM et al. Electromyographic recordings of low back pain subjects and non-pain controls in six different positions: effect of pain levels. Pain 1991; 45(1):23-8.
  14. Ellestad SM, Nagle RV, Boesler DR et al. Electromyographic and skin resistance responses to osteopathic manipulative treatment for low-back pain. J Am Osteopath Assoc 1988; 88(8):991-7.
  15. Bittman B, Cram JR. Surface electromyography: an electrophysiologic alternative in pain management. Presented at the American Pain Society . Illinois1992.
  16. Demoulin C, Crielaard JM, Vanderthommen M. Spinal muscle evaluation in healthy individuals and low-back-pain patients: a literature review. Joint Bone Spine 2007; 74(1):9-13.
  17. American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM). Low back disorders. Occupational medicine practice guidelines: evaluation and management of common health problems and functional recovery in workers. Available online at: Last accessed August, 2013.





CPT    No specific CPT code; see Policy Guidelines 
ICD-9 Procedure     
ICD-9 Diagnosis  724 Other unspecified disorders of the back, including low back pain - code range
HCPCS  S3900  Surface electromyography (EMG) 
ICD-10-CM (effective 10/1/14)    Investigational for all relevant diagnoses
   M54.00-M54.9  Dorsalgia code range 
ICD-10-PCS (effective 10/1/14)      ICD-10-PCS codes are only used for inpatient services. There is no specific ICD-10-PCS code for this testing.  
   4A0FX3Z  Measuring and monitoring, physiological systems, measurement, musculoskeletal, external, contractility 
Type of Service Medicine
Place of Service  Outpatient 




EMG, Surface, Paraspinal
Paraspinal Surface EMG
Surface EMG, Paraspinal 

Policy History


Date Action Reason
08/18/00 Add to Medicine section New policy
12/15/00 Replace policy Benefits application section revised to include information regarding BlueCard or National Accounts
07/12/02 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search; no changes to policy statement
10/9/03 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search; no changes to policy statement
04/1/05 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search; no changes to policy statement. References renumbered
3/7/06 Replace policy Policy reviewed with literature search; no change in policy statement. Reference numbers 14 and 15 added
02/14/08 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search; reference 16 added; no changes to policy statement
10/06/09 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search; no references added; no changes to policy statement
11/11/10 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search. Rationale extensively re-written. References 6 and 14 added; other references re-numbered or removed. No changes to policy statement.
11//10/11 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search. No changes to policy statement
11/08/12 Replace Policy
Policy updated with literature search. No changes to policy statement. References 3-5 and 17 added; other references re-numbered or removed.
9/12/13 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search through July 25, 2013. No changes to policy statement. Reference 6 added; other references re-numbered or removed.