Many more people are trying out acupuncture for back pain relief these days, which isn’t surprising given the number of studies showing benefits of therapy. The alternative pain relief treatment seems to be especially popular for sciatica and lower back pain, but how does it work and how effective is it really?
Acupuncture for Back Pain Relief
Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years. This alternative treatment is based on the idea that pain and other symptoms can result from blockages in energy channels in the body. Practitioners insert small needles into the skin over these channels in order to clear blockages and relieve symptoms.
Scientists investigating these claims have found that acupuncture can alter blood pressure and blood flow and affect vasodilator and vasoconstrictor nerve activity, resulting in significant benefits for lumbar spinal stenosis. Studies also show that acupuncture can improve intermittent claudication symptoms in cauda equina syndrome (Inoue, et al, 2005).
Acupuncture may also be helpful for patients about to undergo lumbar disc protrusion surgery. Classic acupuncture was administered in 66 patients and was found to significantly relieve pain in comparison to sham acupuncture. The benefits also lasted longer with the classic acupuncture treatment (Wang, et al, 2000).
Acupuncture for Sciatica
Inoue and colleagues also used electroacupuncture to stimulate the sciatic nerves in animals. This led to a 100% increase in sciatic nerve blood flow; lumbar muscle stimulation led to just a 56.9% increase in blood flow.
Similar results were also found for pudendal nerve electroacupuncture in humans with lumbar spinal stenosis (Inoue et al, 2008). The treatment significantly reduced lower limb pain and low back pain, and led to improved overall walking distance. Targeted electroacupuncture may be more helpful, therefore, than conventional acupuncture for low back pain.
Acupuncture as an Alternative to Pain Relief Drugs
Spinal stenosis and progressive spinal degeneration can result in a person taking numerous medications to manage their symptoms. Polypharmacy is a serious and growing problem, especially in older adults as the more drugs you take the higher your risk of complications, side effects and drug interactions.
Acupuncture for back pain may be an effective tool in reducing polypharmacy. In one study, researchers looked at the effect of acupuncture for an 87 year old woman with osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis. The woman took a lot of different pain medications at the start of the study.
After acupuncture treatment, trigger point therapy and education on self-acupressure, the woman’s pain decreased significantly. She also weaned herself off all her pain medications and had a significant improvement in quality of life (Tu et al, 2009).
Finding an Acupuncturist
As with any alternative treatment, it is important to talk to your physician before trying acupuncture. Be sure to find a registered, certified acupuncturist and check their qualifications. Your physician may even be able to refer you to a practitioner in some places.
Acupuncture needles are usually single-use and are disposed of safely after treatments. If you have any doubts about the health or safety practices of a clinic or practitioner, stop the treatment and contact your local health department for more information.
Inoue M, Hojo T, Yano T, & Katsumi Y. (2005). Effects of lumbar acupuncture stimulation on blood flow to the sciatic nerve trunk–an exploratory study. Acupunct Med, Dec;23(4):166-70.
Inoue M, Hojo T, Nakajima M, et al. (2008). Pudendal nerve electroacupuncture for lumbar spinal canal stenosis – a case series. Acupunct Med, Sep;26(3):140-4.
Inoue M, Kitakoji H, Yano T, et al. (2008). Acupuncture Treatment for Low Back Pain and Lower Limb Symptoms-The Relation between Acupuncture or Electroacupuncture Stimulation and Sciatic Nerve Blood Flow. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, Jun;5(2):133-43.
Tu B, Johnston M, Hui KK. (2009). Elderly patient refractory to multiple pain medications successfully treated with integrative East-West medicine. Int J Gen Med, Nov 30;1:3-6.
Wang RR, Tronnier V. (2000). Effect of acupuncture on pain management in patients before and after lumbar disc protrusion surgery–a randomized control study. Am J Chin Med, 28(1):25-33.