Every year, more than 8% of the global population experiences lower back pain. Many people also experience pain in the upper back and neck, making back pain one of the most common medical problems. Back pain occurs for many reasons, including auto accidents, slip-and-fall accidents, participation in contact sports, and degenerative conditions affecting the bones, discs and nerves of the spine.
Regardless of why you have back pain, it's important to consult a healthcare professional. Although back pain intensity sometimes improves with rest, you may need treatment before you can return to your normal activities. Acupuncture is an effective treatment involving the insertion of needles, helping reduce pain without addictive medications or surgical procedures that can take you out of commission for several months.
Common Causes of Back Pain
Back pain has many causes, but some are more common than others:
- Sciatica: Sciatica is caused by inflammation, irritation or pinching of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back through the hips. It commonly occurs when a herniated disc presses on the sciatic nerve.
- Disc herniations: A herniation occurs when the outer layer of a disc tears or ruptures. In the spine, discs cushion the vertebrae and provide shock absorption. If you have a herniated disc in your lower back, you may also have pain in your buttocks and legs. With a herniated disc in the upper back, it's common to have pain in the arm or shoulder.
- Stenosis: Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal narrows, putting pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. In addition to back pain, spinal stenosis typically causes muscle weakness, tingling and numbness.
- Spondylolisthesis: Spondylolisthesis develops when one of the small bones in the spine (vertebra) slips out of place. This condition usually develops in the lower back.
- Spondylosis: Spondylosis develops due to wear and tear on the discs, vertebrae, cartilage and ligaments of the spine.
- Facet syndrome: In people with facet syndrome, the joints in the spine become inflamed, causing back pain. This condition is similar to arthritis because it prevents the affected joint from moving normally.
- Degenerative disc disease: As you age, the outer casing of your discs can crack or dry out, making them less effective at shock absorption.
Back pain can interfere with your ability to sleep comfortably, do household chores, enjoy your favorite hobbies or go to work every day. That's why it's so important to have drug-free options for pain management and routine care.
How Does Acupuncture Work to Relieve Back Pain?
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine based on the idea that opposing forces — yin and yang — need to be balanced. When there's an imbalance in your body's energy flow, you may experience pain, illness and reduced function. Acupuncture, as a medical treatment, addresses this type of imbalance, restoring the normal flow of energy.
During an acupuncture procedure, the practitioner inserts needles at specific points on the body. This stimulates the central nervous system, prompting the release of pain-relieving chemicals. Traditional acupuncture also rewires the brain by releasing neurotransmitters, which are hormones that carry messages throughout the nervous system. Some neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, block the nerve cells responsible for receiving pain signals. When these cells are blocked, pain signals can't get through, relieving discomfort.
Acupuncture Points That Relieve Back Pain
In traditional Chinese medicine, "qi" refers to energy or life force. During an acupuncture session, the practitioner targets specific energy points (meridians) based on your symptoms. Acupuncture uses different meridians for lower back pain than it does for painful conditions in the upper back.
Lower Back Acupuncture Points
If you have pain in the lower part of your back, known as the lumbar area, an acupuncturist may target energy points in the following areas:
- Hip points
- Lower back points
- Hand points
- Foot points
- Backs of the knees
- Stomach points
Upper Back Acupuncture Points
If you have upper back pain, the practitioner will focus on points in the head, upper back, neck and shoulders. Targeting these points may also relieve chronic pain caused by headaches, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) or fibromyalgia.
Is Acupuncture Effective for Back Pain?
Several acupuncture studies show that this is an effective, alternative medicine for relieving back pain, whether used alone or in combination with exercise, chiropractic care, physical therapy or other treatments.
Effectiveness of Acupuncture for Chronic Lower Back Pain
When researchers from Penn Medicine examined a group of systematic reviews, they discovered that acupuncture provides clinically relevant benefits for people with chronic lower back pain, such as pain relief and improved function.
Cho et al. conducted a multicenter study on the use of acupuncture needles for chronic lower back pain. As part of the study, they recruited participants between the ages of 18 and 65 who experienced non-specific lower back pain for at least three months before the study began. About half of the participants received sham acupuncture (placebo acupuncture), and the other half received individualized acupuncture treatments with single-use needles. They reported that individualized acupuncture is much more effective than sham acupuncture for reducing bothersome lower back pain. Participants who received real acupuncture also reported that their chronic pain was less intense after the treatments.
Effectiveness of Acupuncture for Sciatica
Sciatica is one of the most common causes of back pain, making it a subject of interest for many researchers. At Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, a research team reviewed 12 previous studies focusing on the use of acupuncture to treat pain associated with sciatica. These studies included nearly 2,000 participants, allowing the team to compare the effects of acupuncture with the effects of conventional sciatica treatments. They discovered that acupuncture was more effective than Western medicine for:
- Improving sciatica symptoms
- Reducing the intensity of sciatica-related pain
- Increasing each participant's pain threshold
Are There Risks When Using Acupuncture?
Expert acupuncturists do everything they can to make acupuncture safe and pain-free, so adverse side effects are rare. For example, a reputable, licensed acupuncturist follows FDA regulations by targeting energy points with single-use needles and sanitizing everything thoroughly before each session. Before trying acupuncture therapy, consult your doctor, especially if you're pregnant, under the age of 20, have a pacemaker or have a chronic health condition.
How to Get the Most Out of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is most effective when it's combined with other noninvasive treatment methods, such as chiropractic care and physical therapy. Ask your care team for recommendations regarding treatment options and timing to receive the full benefits of acupuncture.
Physical Therapy for Back Pain
Physical therapists use several therapeutic approaches to help patients improve their range of motion, flexibility and balance. If your care team recommends physical therapy in conjunction with acupuncture, you may receive the following treatments:
- Supervised exercise: During a PT session, your physical therapist may have you perform exercises to strengthen the muscles in your back. Strong muscles do a better job of supporting the structures in your body, relieving pain and making it easier to move around.
- Ultrasound: Ultrasound involves the use of sound waves to reduce pain and inflammation.
- Electrical stimulation: If your back pain is the result of an injury, electrical stimulation may work in combination with acupuncture to reduce inflammation around the injury site.
- Massage: Massage isn't just something that feels good. It also relieves pain by reducing muscle tension and improving circulation.
Chiropractic Care for Back Pain
Chiropractic professionals care for the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves. If you have back pain due to sciatica, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs or another medical condition, you may be a candidate for spinal manipulation or other chiropractic services.
Spinal manipulation is a conventional therapy that involves having a chiropractor use their hands or a small device to apply controlled pressure to your spine. This chiropractic treatment has been shown to reduce pain and improve function, all without the use of opioid medications. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, one study showed that people with back and leg pain reported a reduction in pain after 12 weeks of receiving spinal manipulation and participating in an exercise program. They also reported using less pain medication one year later.
Frequently Asked Questions About Acupuncture
Below are answers to some of the most common questions on acupuncture.
Is Acupuncture Painful?
You may feel a tingling sensation each time the practitioner inserts a needle, but acupuncture shouldn't cause any pain.
What Other Conditions Does Acupuncture Treat?
Back pain isn't the only symptom relieved by acupuncture. It's also helpful for the following conditions:
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
Is Acupuncture Safe?
When performed by an experienced professional, acupuncture is a safe alternative to pain medications that have addictive properties. Unlike medications, acupuncture doesn't cause any lasting side effects. Even if you feel a tingling sensation at the needle insertion point, you shouldn't feel any discomfort.
How Many Acupuncture Treatments Do I Need for Back Pain?
Acupuncture works best when you have regular treatment sessions. The number of sessions you'll need depends on how your pain is responding and what other treatments you're trying. Talk with a member of your care team if you have any concerns about how many acupuncture sessions you need for back pain relief.
Start Your Journey Toward Drug-Free Pain Management
Northeast Spine and Sports Medicine has skilled acupuncturists available to treat lower back pain caused by injuries and degenerative conditions. To learn more about how acupuncture and other conventional treatments help relieve pain and improve physical functioning, call (732) 653-1000 or request an appointment online.