Ryan the authorRyan Fiorenzi, B.A.
Updated: January 8, 2023

Acupuncture and Back Pain Research

The use of acupuncture is becoming more popular, and for good reason. According to the Archives of Internal Medicine, acupuncture does relieve back pain. Researchers combined results from 29 different studies that involved almost 18,000 participants and found that acupuncture relieved pain by around 50%. The American Pain Society and American College of Physicians also recommend acupuncture for those who aren't finding relief with conventional medical treatments.

This is great news for back pain sufferers, as acupuncture done by an experienced acupuncturist is considered safe.

According to a study published in 2013 by the Mayo Clinic, back pain is the third most common cause of doctor visits in the United States. And according to American Family Physician, only 25% to 30% of people seek treatment for their back pain.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Treatments involve the insertion of very thin needles into specific points on the body that are supposed to stimulate and balance the chi or life force of the body. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, chi flows along 20 meridians or energy channels where organs and systems in the body can be stimulated and balanced by inserting needles along these pathways. Needles are generally left in for 15 to 30 minutes and occasionally the needles will be warmed or electrically stimulated. The acupuncturist will often recommend 1 or 2 treatments per week for a certain period.

Acupuncture is mostly painless and safe. It was approved for use by licensed practitioners by the FDA in 1996. The FDA requires that sterile, nontoxic needles are used one time only.

The FDA has even recommended that doctors receive information about acupuncture (as well as chiropractic care) to help reduce the use of prescription opioids. Opioid addiction, now at epidemic levels, is expected to kill nearly half a million Americans over the next 10 years. There are currently almost 100 deaths per day from opioid overdoses in the United States.

In an article published by Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. Lucy Chen advises, “I think the benefit of acupuncture is clear, and the complications and potential adverse effects of acupuncture are low compared with medication.” Dr. Chen is a board-certified anesthesiologist, specialist in pain medicine, and practicing acupuncturist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Though it's not thoroughly understood by Western Medicine, it's thought that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system, hormone levels, and/or the immune system.

Treatments usually cost between $60 and $120, however, community clinics can charge $15 to $35 per visit. Medicare and Medicaid don't cover the cost, and usually, private insurers don't either, but some plans do cover a physician who is also an acupuncturist.

My Experience

I hate needles, but I see an acupuncturist on a regular basis. When I get back pain I can almost always get rid of my pain by foam rolling, stretching, and strength training with bands. But when the normal methods don't work, acupuncture has worked for me.

Though it's anecdotal, I have several friends and family members who have used acupuncturists for various problems with amazing results. One friend drives around a three-state area in sales, often driving 8 hours per day. His back pain was debilitating. When he visited the acupuncturist he said he had a strong sensation in his lower back during the treatment, and by the end, his pain was almost all gone.

I started talking about acupuncture last night at a family dinner and my mom told me that her friend had had terrible back pain on a cruise and the cruise had a certified acupuncturist on staff for people on the cruise. After one session her back pain was gone.

As far as getting rid of back pain in the long term, remember that there may be things that you're doing that are causing your back pain. Talk to a professional and they may be able to find the source of your pain.