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.
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. Needles 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 painful 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 from other similar neuromuscular issues for which there may not be too many pain remedy options.
- musculoskeletal pain
- post-surgery recovery
- TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder)
It’s not completely understood how acupuncture works. But, 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 pain relievers. (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 way of handling pain, including the release of endorphins.
Regardless of how it works, trials on acupuncture for treating back pain show great results with very little risk of side effects.
Two similar reviews from 2013 showed strong favor for acupuncture as successful therapy. These were specifically for chronic lower back pain.
Acupuncture is a safe procedure and therapy when you see a professional certified acupuncturist.
Avoid receiving acupuncture from someone who is not qualified or certified. It helps to do background research on a practitioner. Or, talk to someone you trust who has seen an acupuncturist for back pain. Ask them about practitioners they would recommend or refer.
People who have received acupuncture sometimes report soreness, bruising, and minor bleeding at puncture sites. These issues 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 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 with your acupuncturist before therapy. Bleeding can happen during the therapy, though this is rare.
Needles must be sterile and disposable. But, make sure to keep puncture sites clean after each session to prevent risk of infection. Risk of infection is small if you see a well-trained professional.
If you want to try acupuncture for relief from back pain, you may want to talk to your regular doctor first. Make sure to discuss whether acupuncture would be best for you.
There is also the question of cost. A single session can range from about $60 to $130, and many health insurance plans do not cover it.
Before setting up an appointment, also make sure that you contact a professional licensed in your state. An acupuncturist should have proper training, licensing, and certification to administer safe treatments. Each state has a board of health that monitors and registers acupuncture practices.
There are 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.
However, keep in mind that one acupuncture treatment does not provide a cure for back pain. While relief is reportedly successful, it’s likely you’ll need long-term treatment. Acupuncture commonly takes numerous treatments over time for the best outcome.
Even if your first session was successful, expect to schedule more appointments. Also, expect that pain can and does usually return. If it does, you’ll have to schedule another series of sessions.
Most people may invest in a weekly session until they experience improvement. Afterward, they start scheduling sessions further apart, such as every other week, then monthly.
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 helpful for many people. It could even be better for back pain than certain medications.
The efficacy of acupuncture is backed by research, and a qualified, well-trained professional, can provide safe treatment.
Still, acupuncture may not be for everyone. Talk with your doctor and acupuncturist about whether acupuncture is right for you.