Can Acupuncture Ease Back Pain?

Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine and has evolved over thousands of years to treat a multitude of ailments. While the efficacy of acupuncture for many conditions has been under debate, today there is a growing acceptance of acupuncture as a treatment for back pain.

In a study last year, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that a seven-week course of acupuncture helped many patients ease chronic lower back pain.

The study participants consisted of 638 adults with chronic mechanical low back pain. The participants were divided into random groups to receive different treatment. One group received individualized acupuncture, another received standardized acupuncture, another received simulated acupuncture, and another received usual care (medicine and doctor checkups). For those who received acupuncture, ten treatments were provided over seven weeks by experienced acupuncturists.

Researchers found that about 40 percent of the usual care group experienced improvements to their back pain, and about 60 percent of the acupuncture group experienced improvement to their back pain.

The American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society released a joint statement last year endorsing acupuncture as one non-drug option for clinicians to recommend to their patients when standard treatments for lower back pain don't work.

How Acupuncture Works

An acupuncturist inserts sterilized stainless steel needles in very specific points to a certain depth to get chi (life energy) flowing in the body.

According to researchers, patient expectations seem to influence the outcome of acupuncture. For example, in the NIH study, researchers found that people who were given simulated acupuncture (the needles push on the skin, but don't penetrate) reported just as much benefit as those who had standard acupuncture.

The reason?

Dan Cherkin, lead author of the NIH study and senior investigator at Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle, believes it's possible that stimulating the standardized acupuncture points on the body, even without piercing the skin with needles, does cause a specific physiological process that reduces pain.

Another possibility, says Cherkin, is that because the patient is feeling that they are getting a helpful treatment for their back pain, the brain reacts in a way that leads to improvement.

Studies continue in this area to find more conclusive data.

Self-Care Methods to Ease Back Pain

While the National Institutes of Health has found acupuncture to be an effective treatment to ease back pain, it is also important to employ some self-care methods to prevent further injury and give you long-term relief.

For a healthy back, try the following:

  • Get some exercise. Regular low-impact aerobic activities can increase strength and endurance in your back and allow your muscles to function better. Walking and swimming are good choices. Talk with your doctor about which activities are best for you.
  • Build muscle strength and flexibility. Abdominal and back muscle exercises (core-strengthening exercises) help condition these muscles so that they work together like a natural corset for your back. Flexibility in your hips and upper legs aligns your pelvic bones to improve how your back feels.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight puts strain on your back muscles. If you're overweight, trimming down can prevent back pain.
  • Quit smoking. Smokers have diminished oxygen levels in their spinal tissues, which can hinder the healing process.
  • Stand smart. Maintain a neutral pelvic position. If you must stand for long periods of time, alternate placing your feet on a low footstool to take some of the load off your lower back.
  • Sit smart. Choose a seat with good lower back support, arm rests and a swivel base. Consider placing a pillow or rolled towel in the small of your back to maintain its normal curve. Keep your knees and hips level.
  • Lift smart. Let your legs do the work. Move straight up and down. Keep your back straight and bend only at the knees. Hold the load close to your body. Avoid lifting and twisting simultaneously. Find a lifting partner if the object is heavy or awkward.


Aubrey, A. Study: Acupuncture Helps Ease Back Pain. NPR. May 18, 2009. Accessed Feb. 10, 2010.

Brinkhaus, B., Witt, C.M. Jena, S., et al. Acupuncture in Patients With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Arch Intern Med. Feb 2006; 166: 450 - 457.

Cherkin, D., Sherman, K., Avins, A., et al. A Randomized Trial Comparing Acupuncture, Simulated Acupuncture, and Usual Care for Chronic Low Back Pain. Arch Intern Med, May 2009; 169: 858 - 866.

Kaptchuck, TJ. Acupuncture: theory, efficacy and practice. Ann Intern Med. 2002 Mar 5;136(5):374-83.

Lewis, K. Abdi, S. Acupuncture for Lower Back Pain, a review. Clin J Pain. 2010 Jan;26(1):60-9.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Back Pain. Accessed Feb. 10, 2010.

Napadow, V. , Kettner, N., Liu J., et al. Hypothalamus and Amygdala Response to Acupuncture Stimuli in Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Pain. 2007 August; 130(3): 254-266. Accessed Feb. 10, 2010.