The centuries-old Chinese science of acupuncture has been found to be useful for all sorts of ailments, including back pain. Surprisingly, a recent study showed about the same level of relief between acupuncture and a “sham” therapy using toothpicks and no actual puncturing of the skin itself.
A recent study in Archives of Internal Medicine assigned 638 people to one of four groups:
- Individualized acupuncture group, with treatment based on a customized prescription for acupuncture points
- Standardized acupuncture group, with treatment considered effective by most experts for lower back pain
- Simulated acupuncture group, with treatment that mimics needle acupuncture but only using a toothpick in a needle guide tube (not penetrating the skin)
- Usual care group, with conventional treatment such as pain control and physical therapy.
Over the course of the study, the individualized acupuncture group had about the same results as the standardized acupuncture group. Simulated acupuncture had about the same effect, but all three did better than the usual-care group. Overall, about 60% of the acupuncture-treated patients had meaningful improvements in dysfunction, compared to 39% of the usual-care group. That improvement translated in patients being able to do more daily activities, such as work, social functions or household tasks, as well as better sleep, less use of pain meds and a higher overall activity level.
60% of the acupuncture-treated patients reported a continued improvement in level of function a year later.
Interestingly, though, the studies also suggest that the simulated acupuncture was just as effective. It’s not clear whether that’s from stimulating the skin superficially (vs. actually inserting a needle), or that just the belief in the treatment itself will help with back pain. That “placebo effect” is common in people with chronic illness or pain; just knowing that someone is caring for it can unload the mind of the burden of disease and discomfort.
So is acupuncture effective in treating back pain?
The study doesn’t make this completely clear. What is clear, though, is that acupuncture is very safe, inexpensive, not invasive (like surgery) and doesn’t have side effects like pain meds. In any event, chronic back pain should be evaluated by a physician first to rule out any serious medical problems that might contribute to it. Back pain can result from chronic nutritional deficiency, blood stagnation, prostate problems, cold damp weather or any number of other problems; it’s essential to eliminate these causes when approaching back pain issues.
In most cases, though, back pain is a result of cramped muscles, sprains, strains or other muscle and ligament problems. In those cases, acupuncture (direct or distal) can be the perfect remedy. Distal points (away from the area of pain itself) can be very important and effective in relieving acute pain, and can give excellent and quick relief. An acupuncture practitioner can palpate the sensitive spots to find where to apply needles, then work on distal points from there.