Observation of Balmer lines from the region around the forward shock of supernova remnants (SNRs) may provide valuable information on the shock dynamics and the efficiency of particle acceleration at the shock. We calculated the Balmer line emission and the shape of the broad Balmer line for parameter values suitable for SNR RCW 86 (G315.4-2.3) as a function of the cosmic-ray (CR) acceleration efficiency and of the level of thermal equilibration between electrons and protons behind the shock. This calculation aims at using the width of the broad Balmer-line emission to infer the CR acceleration efficiency in this remnant. We used the recently developed non linear theory of diffusive shock-acceleration in the presence of neutrals. The semianalytical approach we developed includes a description of magnetic field amplification as due to resonant streaming instability, the dynamical reaction of accelerated particles and the turbulent magnetic field on the shock, and all channels of interaction between neutral hydrogen atoms and background ions that are relevant for the shock dynamics. We derived the CR acceleration efficiency in the SNR RCW 86 from the Balmer emission. Since our calculation used recent measurements of the shock proper motion, the results depend on the assumed distance to Earth. For a distance of 2kpc the measured width of the broad Balmer line is compatible with the absence of CR acceleration. For a distance of 2.5kpc, which is a widely used value in current literature, a CR acceleration efficiency of 5-30% is obtained, depending upon the electron-ion equilibration and the ionization fraction upstream of the shock. By combining information on Balmer emission with the measured value of the downstream electron temperature, we constrain the CR acceleration efficiency to be ∼20%.