Acupuncture can be a safe, effective component in a multi-prong Traditional Chinese Medicine approach to chronic pain management. Research supports Acupuncture for patients suffering from chronic low back pain (Urits et al, 2021). Acupuncture sometimes has a reputation, in some circles, as being scientifically unproven. What does the research say? Can Acupuncture Help Back Pain? We examine the research to determine the efficacy of acupuncture for low back pain.
As patient expectations impact acupuncture outcomes (Kalauokalani, 2001), despite some underwhelming-appearing research study results, there is documented benefit from a course of acupuncture.
The Problem with Acupuncture Research
Acupuncture has been the subject of research studies. However, there is some inconclusive evidence on acupuncture’s efficacy for pain and increased range of motion. (Lee et al, 2013) This appears to be due, in part, to a few factors:
- Some comparative studies were downgraded because of the limitations of not having a true sham acupuncture control group. (Urits et al, 2021)
- Multiple successful studies were downgraded for bias in one Cochrane review (Mu et al, 2020).
- There is a variable in acupuncture practice regarding the acupuncture method used. Most physicians received training in French Energetic acupuncture, whereas most nonphysician licensed acupuncturists perform traditional Chinese needling techniques (Kalauokalani, et al, 2005).
These variables have all impacted the acupuncture outcome data.
What exactly does that mean? Due to the nature of acupuncture treatment, it is difficult to have a control group that receives sham acupuncture. Acupuncture can largely just be compared to another treatment or no treatment. This limits acupuncture study options.
But what DOES acupuncture research show?
What the Research Says to Expect Regarding Acupuncture for Low Back Pain
Despite some inconclusive studies, research does support acupuncture for chronic low back pain:
- The aforementioned meta-analysis of a Cochrane review concluded acupuncture is helpful for chronic low back pain and improved motion compared to no treatment (Mu et al, 2020).
- One systematic review compared 11 acupuncture studies and found that acupuncture was more helpful for pain than NSAIDs but not as helpful as medication (Lee et al, 2013).
- The CDC indicates those who had regular acupuncture sessions had lower rates of opioid use. (HHS CDC NCIPC Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, 2018). So acupuncture may lessen the level of pain that a patient formerly took medications to relieve.
- Acupuncture is more cost-effective than some other treatments (Furlan, 2010) and it is a safe and effective treatment (Djaali, 2021).
One can expect acupuncture to provide brief immediate pain reduction (Furlan, 2010) perhaps to support strengthening exercises, restorative sleep, and another attempt at OT/work hardening (Quassem, 2017).
Acupuncture could also provide some relief during flare-ups or new, acute injuries. Other adjunctive treatments such as manipulation, TENS, or massage may be helpful (Furlan, 2010).
Studies on Pain and Mobility Goals
Other than Mu’s Cochrane review meta-analysis, these studies did not cite increased mobility outcomes with acupuncture. There are, however, pending studies that may address mobility issues. One is for Motion Style Acupuncture Treatment.
Summary on Can Acupuncture Help Back Pain
In research studies, Acupuncture is proven effective for treating low back pain. The best results seen are for immediate relief. Your health insurance may cover acupuncture treatment. The form of acupuncture you receive can impact the results.
Djaali, W., Mihardja, H., Viventius, Y., Teja, Y., Bunawan, H. L., Setiawan, M., & Yunita, L. (2021). The Role of Acupuncture in Interventional Pain Management. Medical Acupuncture, 33(5), 329–334. https://doi.org/10.1089/acu.2021.0004
Furlan, A. D., Yazdi, F., Tsertsvadze, A., Gross, A., Van Tulder, M., Santaguida, L., Cherkin, D., Gagnier, J., Ammendolia, C., Ansari, M. T., Ostermann, T., Dryden, T., Doucette, S., Skidmore, B., Daniel, R., Tsouros, S., Weeks, L., & Galipeau, J. (2010). Complementary and alternative therapies for back pain II. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment, 194, 1–764. https://europepmc.org/article/MED/23126534
HHS CDC NCIPC Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention. (2016). LEARN MORE | CDC GUIDELINE FOR PRESCRIBING OPIOIDS FOR CHRONIC PAIN Promoting Patient Care and Safety THE US OPIOID OVERDOSE EPIDEMIC.
Kalauokalani, D., Cherkin, D. C., Sherman, K. J., Koepsell, T. D., & Deyo, R. A. (2001). Lessons from a Trial of Acupuncture and Massage for Low Back Pain. Spine, 26(13), 1418–1424. https://doi.org/10.1097/00007632-200107010-00005
Kalauokalani, D., Cherkin, D. C., & Sherman, K. J. (2005). A Comparison of Physician and Nonphysician Acupuncture Treatment For Chronic Low Back Pain. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 21(5), 406–411. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.ajp.0000125265.40304.c5
Lee, J.-H., Choi, T.-Y., Lee, M. S., Lee, H., Shin, B.-C., & Lee, H. (2013). Acupuncture for acute low back pain: a systematic review. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(2), 172–185. https://doi.org/10.1097/AJP.0b013e31824909f9
Mu, J., Furlan, A. D., Lam, W. Y., Hsu, M. Y., Ning, Z., & Lao, L. (2020). Acupuncture for chronic nonspecific low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.cd013814
Shin, J.-S., Ha, I.-H., Lee, T.-G., Choi, Y., Park, B.-Y., Kim, M., & Lee, M. S. (2011). Motion style acupuncture treatment (MSAT) for acute low back pain with severe disability: a multicenter, randomized, controlled trial protocol. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 11, 127. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-11-127
Qaseem, A., Wilt, T. J., McLean, R. M., & Forciea, M. A. (2017). Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine, 166(7), 514. https://doi.org/10.7326/m16-2367
Urits, I., Wang, J. K., Yancey, K., Mousa, M., Jung, J. W., Berger, A. A., Shehata, I. M., Elhassan, A., Kaye, A. D., & Viswanath, O. (2021). Acupuncture for the Management of Low Back Pain. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 25(1). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-020-00919-y