If there was a chance that poking multiple holes in your body could help heal your back pain and offer relief, would you do it? Get ready for some ventilation because new research indicates that the ancient Chinese art of acupuncture can relieve back pain.

Acupuncture is the process of placing hair-like needles into specific points in the body to open up energy channels (also known as meridians). Ancient Chinese acupuncturists believed that pain and sickness is caused when these energy channels become blocked. There are 12 standard meridians in the body related to yin and yang properties. Acupuncture addresses imbalances in these meridians to keep energy flowing smoothly through the body.

If that sounds a little-far-fetched, consider this: a large-scale, 2012 meta-analysis of nearly 18,000 patients who used acupuncture found statistically significant decreases in pain of the neck, shoulder, and back. Patients reported pain levels that dropped from a 60 to a 30 (on a scale from one to 100). This was true for all types of acupuncture in the study, including placebo acupuncture or sham acupuncture, indicating that the placebo effect, although a factor, may not have accounted entirely for the results.

As with most things medical, though, the mind is a powerful treatment option.

Another study by the University of Southampton found that acupuncture treatment was more likely to be more effective for patients who believed it would work than for patients who were skeptical of the practice. This may have more to do with some back pain patients feeling as if they had more control over their condition than others.

Dr. Felicity Bishop, an Arthritis Research UK career development fellow believes it is the feeling of control more than the belief in acupuncture (or not) that influenced the results:

“When individual patients came to see their back pain more positively they went on to experience less back-related disability. In particular, they experienced less disability over the course of treatment when they came to see their back pain as more controllable, when they felt they had better understanding of their back pain, when they felt better able to cope with it, were less emotional about it, and when they felt their back pain was going to have less of an impact on their lives.”

Frame of mind does not explain all of how acupuncture works to treat pain, but new research is trying to uncover the mystery of how this method works. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Molecular Neurobiology, researchers found that insertion of acupuncture needles causes a biochemical reaction that helps to reduce inflammation and muscle pain. Needling one specific point on the leg decreased production of M1 macrophages (inflammatory cells) while increasing M2 macrophages (anti-inflammatory cells). Researchers think of this in terms of flipping a switch. Acupuncture flips the inflammatory response in the body off while flipping the healing response on.

From a figurative flip of the switch to a literal one, new research is proving the “shocking” benefits of electroacupuncture.

In this type of acupuncture, a weak electrical current is sent through the needles to amplify the benefits. A study in 2013 found that needles inserted distally (away from the location of the pain) helped relieve neck pain. Four hundred and twenty participants were divided into two groups, one receiving electroacupuncture for cervical intervertebral disc herniation (CIDH) and the other taking meloxicam, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), in tablet form. Researchers found that in both short- and long-term treatments, electroacupuncture was more efficacious in treating this type of neck pain.

Neck pain isn’t the only type of back pain that acupuncture is proving useful for. Wonli acupuncture, developed by researchers in South Korea, has proven to be effective in treating spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal column that occurs naturally as we age. This method was especially useful for those patients who were not able to find relief through other more traditional methods of treatment.

As with any medical treatment, it is important to understand how to find a qualified acupuncturist and to know what to expect at your appointment.

Getting a recommendation from trusted family and friends is one place to start. Another good search tool is the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Founded in 1982, this nonprofit organization sets rigorous standards for education, certification, and practice. Use their “Find a Practitioner” tool to locate an acupuncturist near you. You should also meet with the acupuncturist and talk them prior to treatment. If you are not comfortable for any reason, keep looking.

For your appointment, wear loose-fitting clothing. Depending on the area being treated and the treatment selected, you may not have to remove your clothing. The acupuncturist will ask about your current health issues and then take information on past health issues or family history. He or she will then take your pulse and explain the treatment. Your treatment may use one pack of needles, or it may use several. It is important that each pack of needles is sealed and opened in front of you. Acupuncture carries with it an extremely low incidence of any type of side effects, but it is important that the needles are sterile and single-use.

Your acupuncturist will then ask you to lie back (or lie down on a table if needles will be inserted next to the spine). You may have to disrobe, or you may be able to adjust your clothing. They will insert needles one by one with a light tap. You may feel a slight sting, or you may feel nothing. The acupuncturist will sometimes move the needle around gently, but usually they are inserted and then left. You will be asked to rest and relax for a period of time, usually between 20 and 45 minutes. After that time is up, the needles will be removed, and you will be on your way.

With a growing body of research supporting acupuncture’s use for back pain, would you consider this treatment?

Image by Boemski via Flickr


Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.

You have Successfully Subscribed!