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How Effective is Acupuncture for Treating Low-back Pain?

Low-back pain is a serious condition that affects 31 million Americans[1]. Some of the causes include sports injuries, poor posture, and obesity. Many patients rely on pain medication and other traditional therapies to treat low-back pain. One popular alternative to this is acupuncture, but the effectiveness of this treatment is still up for debate.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a treatment for pain that has its origins in traditional Chinese medicine. The practitioner inserts fine needles into the skin at specific pressure points with the goal of correcting imbalances in the flow of Qi, or natural energy. Anywhere between 1 and 12 points are selected based on the person’s condition. The needles are inserted just below the surface of the skin or slightly into the underlying muscle tissue. Usually, a slight tingling sensation is felt. The acupuncture session lasts between 20 and 40 minutes.[2]

Does it Work?

There are several clinical trials that looked at the effectiveness of acupuncture. One study titled “Acupuncture and dry-needling for low back pain” compared the effects of acupuncture for chronic low-back pain and the effects of no treatment for the condition. It concluded that there was improvement in function and a reduction in pain with acupuncture. These effects were immediate, but lasted just a short while. One technique that was shown to help relieve chronic low back pain in conjunction with other therapies is dry-needling or intramuscular stimulation.[3]

Possible Explanations of Benefits

There are several possible explanations for the benefits of acupuncture including:

-Speeding the relay of electromagnetic signals to release pain-relieving endorphins
-Triggering the release of natural opioids
-Altering brain chemistry by releasing neurotransmitters and neurohormones[4]

The Placebo Effect

Many studies that have looked at the effectiveness of acupuncture concluded that the placebo effect was just as effective as acupuncture in terms of pain relief. This fact has complicated the issue and left doctors without enough evidence to recommend this as a first option for treatment. It is recommended however as an alternative therapy for patients that don’t respond to conventional treatment by the American Pain Society and American College of Physicians.[4] The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does recommend acupuncture as a treatment option for chronic lower back pain.[5]


There are risks associated with acupuncture including pain, bleeding, and bruising at the needle injection site and a feeling of either being sick, dizzy, or faint.[6]


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