Acupuncture and back pain
Back pain (especially lower back pain) is a common chronic pain issue. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese physical therapy that has become a popular and well-researched method for managing this pain.
How acupuncture helps back pain
Acupuncture is a traditional therapy based on the idea of energetics in the body.
Treatment consists of inserting needles at various pressure points on the body and through the skin. They are not meant to cause pain, harm, or discomfort.
A professional acupuncturist will target energy (or “qi” in Chinese medicine) points for treatment. These are also called meridians, with some being of special benefit to pained nerves and muscles in the back.
There are a few qi meridians that an acupuncturist may focus on for back pain.
Some acupuncture points for lower back pain are:
- back of the knees points
- foot points
- lower back points
- hand points
- hip points
- stomach points
Points for upper back pain (also called thoracic back pain) are usually different. These are found on the head, neck, shoulders, and upper back.
By stimulating these points, parts of the nervous system are also stimulated to relieve pain. Acupuncture can also provide pain relief for other similar neuromuscular issues for which there may not be too many successful pain remedy options.
- musculoskeletal pain
- post-surgery recovery
- TMJ (temperomandibular joint disorder)
How to get acupuncture for back pain
If you want to try acupuncture relief for back pain, contact an acupuncturist nearby. It may also be wise to talk to your doctor beforehand.
Make sure to discuss whether acupuncture would be the best for you and your situation. There is also the question of costs. Many health insurance plans do not cover the cost of acupuncture. A single session can range from about $60 to $130.
Before setting up an appointment, also make sure that you contact a qualified professional. An acupuncturist should have proper training, licensing, and certification to administer safe, healthy treatments.
There are simple ways to use the internet to find a qualified and certified acupuncturist in your area. One way is check the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) directory.
Keep in mind: One acupuncture treatment does not provide a permanent cure for back pain. While relief is reportedly very successful, it’s likely that long term treatment will be required.
Even if your first session was successful, expect to schedule a future appointment. Also expect that pain can and does usually return. If (and when) it does, you’ll have to schedule another session.
Most people may invest in a weekly session until they experience noticeable improvement. Afterwards, they start scheduling sessions further and further apart, such as every other week, then monthly.
Is acupuncture backed by science?
It’s not completely understood how acupuncture works scientifically. There are a few ways by which acupuncture is thought to work for back pain:
- Stimulates nervous system. Trigger points stimulated by acupuncture could release chemicals from the spinal cord, muscles, and brain. Some of these could be naturally pain-relieving.
- Releases opioid-like chemicals produced in the body. Along the same lines as the theory above, acupuncture may release pain-relieving chemicals. These naturally occur in the body and have similar properties to opioid painkillers. (Hydrocodone or morphine are examples.)
- Releases neurotransmitters. These are hormones that send messages regulating the on/off mechanisms of various nerve endings. Acupuncture may stimulate some that shut off pain.
- Triggers electromagnetic impulses in the body. These impulses can help speed the body’s ways of handling pain, including the release of endorphins.
Regardless of how it works, trials on acupuncture for treating back pain show great results.
In one review compiled in 2012, almost 20,000 people with chronic pain were reviewed. They were given either authentic acupuncture treatments, a “fake” treatment, or no acupuncture at all. Those who received real acupuncture experienced 50 percent improvement in their chronic pain issues.
Two similar reviews came later in 2013. In these, results showed strong favor for acupuncture as successful therapy. These were for chronic lower back pain specifically.
What you should know about back pain and acupuncture
Acupuncture, despite its use of needles, should be an entirely safe procedure and therapy. This should especially be the case if you see a professional, qualified acupuncturist.
Avoid receiving acupuncture from someone who is not trained, qualified, or certified. It helps to do a little background research on a practitioner. Needles must be sterile and disposable.
Or, talk to someone you trust who has seen an acupuncturist successfully for back pain. Ask them about what practitioners they would recommend or refer.
People who have received acupuncture sometimes report soreness, bruising, and minor bleeding at puncture sites. This should clear up and go away in a few days. It also poses little to no risk to overall health.
If you’re pregnant, certain types of acupuncture could possibly stimulate labor and delivery. Talk to your acupuncturist about your pregnancy beforehand.
If you take blood thinners or have a bleeding disorder, acupuncture poses some health risks. Make sure to discuss your issues and medications openly if you go forward with the therapy. Bleeding can happen during the therapy, though major risks due to this are rare.
Make sure to keep puncture sites clean after each session to prevent any risk of infection. Risk of infection is incredibly small if you see a well-trained, trustworthy professional.
The bottom line
Acupuncture can be a successful go-to therapy for chronic back pain. It can apply to either lower or upper back pain.
Research shows that it could be very helpful for many people. It could be even better for back pain than certain medications.
Though experts aren’t sure how it works, its efficacy is backed by research. Under the hands of a qualified, well-trained professional, it should be a safe treatment option.
Still, acupuncture may not be for everyone. Talk openly with your doctor and acupuncture therapist about whether acupuncture is right for you.