Acupuncture Back Pain

By Nola Peacock, DSc
Professor, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

Has too much work or play left you with a nagging backache? Maybe in the past you have never thought about acupuncture as a way to treat your back pain. Some promising new research about acupuncture, however, may make you reconsider.
According to the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AAAOM), acupuncture has been used to relieve pain for more than 2,000 years.

Acupuncture is just one piece of the “whole system” approach of oriental medicine, a system that also includes herbal remedies, exercise, and nutrition. The AAAOM describes oriental medicine and acupuncture as a system that can treat, diagnose, and prevent acute and chronic medical conditions.1

Oriental medicine teaches that a vital life force or energy flows through the body. This energy is called qi and is pronounced “chee.” Poor health can develop when the balance of qi is disturbed and results in a blockage of energy flow.2 During acupuncture treatment, an oriental medicine practioner inserts very thin, flexible needles into specific points on the client’s body. The exact placement of needles, frequency, and duration of treatment is individually tailored to each patient’s symptoms and diagnosis. This treatment is believed to restore energy flow along meridians or pathways within the body. As a result, acupuncture regains the body’s balance and the client’s health subsequently improves.3

Acupuncture is often recommended for the management of acute and chronic pain. Take the example of John Maxwell, a 60-year old banker who tried acupuncture as treatment for his chronic back pain. An avid hiker, he would often overexert himself on weekend hikes. During an office visit for back pain, John’s medical doctor recommended acupuncture as a treatment. John wondered if acupuncture was right for him. “I was afraid acupuncture would be painful, I don’t really like needles. But what I felt was a tingling sensation from the acupuncture,” he said. John continued acupuncture for several treatments over the course of a few weeks, and his back pain was alleviated over time. John reports that he has continued his hiking season in good shape with no persistent back pain.

A recently published study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, indicates that acupuncture reduces chronic back pain.4 Daniel Cherkin, PhD, and his team compared pain and function scores between subjects receiving usual care for back pain and those receiving acupuncture. Usual back pain care may include over-the-counter or prescription medications, education, home back pain remedies, and further physician visits.5 In the study, subjects received 10 acupuncture treatments for their back pain. Interestingly, after 8 weeks of treatment, acupuncture decreased back pain significantly more than usual care treatments. Furthermore, subjects receiving acupuncture up to one year later had better function scores than those subjects who received usual care. Although this research did not uncover the exact mechanism by which acupuncture elicits a change in back pain, it does add a piece to the puzzle in understanding the benefits of acupuncture, and provides a case for future research (see

So, the next time you are pushed to the sidelines of your activities due to back pain, see your physician for an evaluation and ask is acupuncture is right for you. You may be glad you did.


1. American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Oriental Medicine (Overview), (accessed August 11, 2009).
2. Ibid.
3. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Acupuncture: An introduction, (accessed August 11, 2009).
4. Cherkin DC, et al., A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, and usual care for chronic low back pain. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(9): 858-866.
5. Cherkin DC, et al., Efficacy of acupuncture for chronic low back pain: protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 28(9): 10.

Nola Peacock, DSc

Nola Peacock is a professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences where she teaches classes such as Current Trends in Exercise and Fitness and Health and Wellness Programming—Design and Administration.  Dr. Peacock received her Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science from the University of Utah in 1991.  She completed her Master of Science in Physical Therapy at Chapman University in 1993.  In 2002 she received her Doctor of Science degree in Orthopedic Physical Therapy from Rocky Mountain University.  Dr. Peacock has published research in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy and authored a chapter in a forthcoming physical therapy textbook.  She currently works as a Physical therapist and wellness specialist at St. John’s Medical Center and lives with her husband and two children in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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