Acupuncture for Back Pain: Research and Effectiveness

Medically Reviewed By Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that has been around for centuries. According to current research, using acupuncture for back pain may bring relief. However, there are also some risks to keep in mind. Over 70% of adults Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source in industrialized countries experience lower back pain at some time in their life. Pain in other areas of the back is also a common concern. 

The approach of conventional medicine to pain relief may leave people dissatisfied. As a result, they may decide to try complementary alternative methods, such as acupuncture. Clinicians are also looking for scientifically proven pain management alternatives to decrease the need to prescribe opioids. 

Read on to learn more about acupuncture and what current research is saying about its pain-relieving benefits. 

Does acupuncture work for back pain?

Person receiving acupuncture on their back
Ibai Acevedo/Stocksy United

For centuries, experts have used acupuncture to treat various conditions, including back pain. Scientists do not fully understand how acupuncture works but have some theories.

Acupuncture may affect Trusted Source National Cancer Institute Governmental authority Go to source how the nervous system functions. Additionally, it may stimulate nerve fibers and muscle tissue to reduce spasms and improve joint mobility. 

Acupuncture can also reduce inflammation and relax tight muscles. During acupuncture, a release of chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins can lead to pain relief.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body contains a delicate balance of two opposing forces: yin and yang. People find health when they bring the two forces into balance. 

Acupuncture may balance these two energies throughout the body by restoring the flow of qi — life energy — that has been disrupted by certain lifestyle choices or injury. 

Read about lower back pain.

What does research say about acupuncture?

Though not everyone agrees on the effectiveness of acupuncture, it has been suggested that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for chronic back pain. Chronic back pain refers to pain that lasts longer than 3 months. 

However, there is a lack of research on how acupuncture affects acute back pain. Acute back pain refers to pain lasting less than 3 months. 

According to a 2015 overview of research Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , in studies including people who received acupuncture for chronic lower back pain, most participants reported a significant reduction in their discomfort and an improvement in their mobility. This was especially true when the participant’s treatment included both acupuncture and conventional pain management treatments. 

While not specific to back pain, a 2021 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source looked at the effects of acupuncture on cancer survivors experiencing chronic muscle and skeletal pain. 

Because of the opioid misuse epidemic, cancer survivors reported more barriers to getting their medications and also voiced their concerns about addiction. These people were seeking alternative methods to treat their pain.

Cancer survivors who received acupuncture during the study reported better pain management than those who did not receive acupuncture. 

However, not all studies have produced similar findings. Some research cites insufficient evidence, contradicting conclusions, and low quality testing. 

One study from 2020 Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source that acupuncture did not play a meaningful role in treating back pain immediately. However, it did produce pain relief in the long term compared with no treatment at all.

Ultimately, if you are considering the use of acupuncture for managing your back pain, it is important for you to consult a healthcare professional. Talk with them about your pain management options before attempting any self-care or alternative options to help ensure your safety and well-being.

What are other concerns about acupuncture and back pain?

While acupuncture is considered Trusted Source National Cancer Institute Governmental authority Go to source a relatively safe and reliable procedure, there are certain risks or limitations to be aware of. That said, adverse effects from acupuncture are rare Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source .

After treatment, some people may experience:

Before having acupuncture, let the clinician know of any medical conditions you have and any side effects you have experienced. That way, they can work to avoid any possible complications.

While very rare, complications from improperly delivered acupuncture may include:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles and requires them to be sterile, single-use medical devices. 

When done properly, acupuncture may significantly relieve your back pain without side effects. 

Learn how to choose an acupuncturist.

How do you use acupuncture for back pain?

If you are considering acupuncture, it is important to search for a quality practitioner with years of experience and training in order to get the most effective results. Most states license qualified practitioners.

Some health insurance policies cover acupuncture visits, while others do not. Coverage may also depend on the type of condition needing treatment. 

At your first visit, your acupuncture clinician will talk with you about your symptoms and discuss other modes of treatment you have tried. They will also ask about other health conditions you have and your current medications.

During the session, you will be in a warm and comfortable atmosphere that encourages relaxation. The acupuncturist will place very thin needles in areas around the body. Some people do not feel any pain from the needles, while others feel a slight pinch. 

Sessions typically last about 30 minutes. You may need to return for several sessions to get the most benefits.  

Other frequently asked questions

These are some more questions people frequently asked about acupuncture and back pain. They have been reviewed by Kerry Boyle DAc, LAc.

Is acupuncture or massage better for back pain?

Which therapy is better for you depends on the source of your back pain. Talk with your doctor about which alternative therapy would be the most effective treatment for you. 

How often should you do acupuncture for back pain?

How often you should do acupuncture for back pain depends on the severity of your symptoms and how well your pain responds to treatment.

Why does my back hurt more after acupuncture?

Some people experience a worsening of their symptoms after acupuncture, but this is usually short-lived. Always consult with a licensed professional before starting any new treatment.

Summary

Acupuncture may be a helpful complementary treatment for you to consider if you have back pain. While the research on its effectiveness is still ongoing, there is some evidence that it may help to relieve pain and improve function. 

As with any treatment, there are potential risks and side effects associated with acupuncture. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional who can answer any questions or concerns you may have about whether acupuncture is right for you.

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Medical Reviewer: Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 3
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