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Acupuncture for chronic low back pain

Chronic low back pain

Acupuncture for chronic low back pain


Low back pain is generally considered to be the leading cause of disability worldwide. In the USA, it is the fifth most common reason that people go to their doctor and the most common cause of chronic or permanent disability in people under 65 years old. (1)


Different types of low back pain

Low back pain can be separated into different groupings, according to which treatments are most likely to be effective.

  • Acute low back pain – Acute low back pain normally lasts a few days to a few weeks. If your doctor decides that there is no other health issue affecting a new case of low back pain, then during the episode they may recommend interventions such as short-term medications, application of heat, normal routine activities, goal-setting and certain physical therapies. Acute low back pain is considered to be a self-limiting condition, meaning that most cases will resolve on their own. Remaining active and involved with your recovery is thought to help prevent the acute pain episode from becoming a chronic problem. (2,3)
  • Sciatica – A condition called lumbar radiculopathy is commonly called “sciatica” because it can involve the sciatic nerve in the lower back. It is also commonly called “pinched nerve”. There are usually specific symptoms and your doctor will normally refer you to imaging studies to check the disc, bones or ligaments in the area surrounding the affected nerve. They will then recommend the best treatment for your situation.
  • Other specific causes of low back pain – depending on the cause of your pain and the symptoms you have, your doctor will decide on the diagnosis and discuss various ways to recover function or manage symptoms.
  • Chronic low back pain – if there is no known specific cause of low back pain, and it has been present for three months or more, then this is called chronic low back pain.


What are the recommended treatments for chronic low back pain?

There are a number of guidelines in different states and countries, but generally-accepted treatment for chronic low back pain often includes:

  • Pain relieving medications
  • Exercises
  • Manual therapies
  • Acupuncture
  • Combined therapies (eg physical plus psychological treatment) (4)


A recent guideline (2) suggested that the first treatments offered for chronic low back pain should be non-drug treatments, because these therapies are associated with lower risk of harm. They should be provided by qualified practitioners. These treatments include:

  • Exercise
  • Multidisciplinary rehabilitation (combining two or more approaches eg physical treatment with psychology, acupuncture with exercises)
  • Acupuncture
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction
  • Yoga
  • Other therapies which may include tai chi, yoga, motor control exercise, progressive relaxation, electromyography biofeedback, low-level laser therapy, operant therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or spinal manipulation (2, 5)


What makes Chinese medicine treatment for chronic low back pain different from some other approaches?

A group of researchers in Germany looked at different subgroups of chronic low back pain patients, and determined that trying to describe a one-size-fits-all treatment is unlikely to be effective. (6)

At this clinic, we apply the Chinese medicine approach, which looks at the whole person and their individual circumstances. Chinese medicine is a body-mind approach, seeing a person’s physical reality as inseparable from their mental, emotional, social and spiritual life.

We can help you by explaining how Chinese medicine sees all of your symptoms as an integrated whole, not just looking at isolated symptoms such as pain. The Chinese medicine framework is about understanding how factors in your life are interconnected, so that you can set goals for your recovery and work towards regaining wellbeing in an integrated way.

Alongside acupuncture treatment, we generally recommend tailored lifestyle modifications such as stress reduction, meditation, adjustments to exercise routines, dietary therapy or self-care at home such as heat therapy.


How can acupuncture work with other therapies for low back pain?

Chronic low back pain is often associated with changes to work, activities or quality of life. Studies have looked at the impact of a “biopsychosocial” model, involving a team of health professionals from different disciplines (such as physical therapies plus psychology). They have found positive effects of this approach on pain and function scores as well as increasing the likelihood of returning to work. (7)

Chinese medicine is a body-mind approach that considers the way a person is interconnected in their natural and social environment. In this way, Chinese medicine is inherently a “biopsychosocial” model.

Some studies have looked at combinations of treatment, and there are positive findings for combinations such as acupuncture combined with conventional medical care or with exercise therapy. Integrated therapy may be more effective than single therapies alone (1).

This has been our experience at this clinic, and we often recommend people to combine approaches such as osteopathy or remedial massage with traditional Chinese acupuncture. We are very comfortable working within a team approach to your health if you are also seeing other health practitioners.


How effective is acupuncture treatment for chronic low back pain?

For all non-invasive therapies, patients in research studies tend to experience a greater benefit in pain reduction than improvement in function. (8)

In research studies, acupuncture treatment has been compared to no treatment, to usual care and to “sham” acupuncture (“fake” acupuncture which aims to act as a placebo). At the end of a course of treatment and at three month follow up, acupuncture tends to lead to improvements in pain intensity and in some situations also improvements in function. (5, 9, 10).

When compared with medications, acupuncture tends to lead to greater pain relief and better function, measured at the end of a course of treatment. (5)

It is important to note that all non-invasive treatments for low back pain tend to show relatively small benefits when applied in research settings, and what happens in a real acupuncture clinic might be different from the limited and controlled treatments that are used in research studies. (9)


How many sessions of acupuncture are needed for chronic low back pain treatment?

Studies have varied in the number and frequency of acupuncture sessions, from around four to over 20. Some studies have even looked at results from a single session, but this is not a reasonable expectation.

You can expect to have around 10 sessions to achieve a noticeable improvement. (4) Be aware that each person is different and, with chronic conditions, there may be other factors that need to be addressed to bring about positive changes.


Is dry needling the same as acupuncture?

Dry needling is a technique that is usually taught over a short duration, sometimes just one weekend, for physiotherapists or other health practitioners to use an acupuncture needle in a muscle trigger point. Trigger points are “knots” in muscles that are thought to create referred pain.

This is similar to just one small part of acupuncture theory. In acupuncture, we sometimes use “Ah Shi” treatment – “Ah Shi” means “Ah yes”. When the acupuncturist presses on a knot, the patient says “yes, that’s it”. Releasing an Ah Shi point is a very basic application of acupuncture.

Acupuncture has developed over thousands of years, with systematic observations of trial and error handed down through many generations. It is taught in modern times as a university degree over four years, with hundreds of hours of clinical practice. This allows acupuncturists to not only practice according to safety guidelines, but also to consider the whole body-mind system when addressing any single symptom.

Chinese medicine theory is integrated and wholistic, meaning that the body systems, conscious experience and a person’s surroundings are considered as an interconnected web of cause and effect. Chinese medicine diagnosis is about seeing these relationships and working with your strengths to encourage the body to regain its self-sustaining balance.


Further information or seeking treatment

If you would like to know more, you can:



1. Kizhakkeveettil A, Rose K, Kadar GE. Integrative Therapies for Low Back Pain that Include Complementary and Alternative Medicine Care: A Systematic Review. Global Advances in Health and Medicine. 2014;3(5):49-64. doi:10.7453/gahmj.2014.043

2. Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, McLean RM, Forciea MA, for the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of Physicians. Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2017;166(7):514. doi:10.7326/M16-2367

3. NSW Agency for Clinical Inovation (ACI). Management of people with acute low back pain model of care. Available from: 2016;accessed Apr 2019

4. Wong JJ, Côté P, Sutton DA, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for the noninvasive management of low back pain: A systematic review by the Ontario Protocol for Traffic Injury Management (OPTIMa) Collaboration. European Journal of Pain. 2017;21(2):201-216. doi:10.1002/ejp.931

5. Chou R, Deyo R, Friedly J, et al. Nonpharmacologic Therapies for Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review for an American College of Physicians Clinical Practice Guideline. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2017;166(7):493. doi:10.7326/M16-2459

6. Hirsch O, Strauch K, Held H, et al. Low Back Pain Patient Subgroups in Primary Care: Pain Characteristics, Psychosocial Determinants, and Health Care Utilization. The Clinical Journal of Pain. 2014;30(12):1023-1032. doi:10.1097/AJP.0000000000000080

7. Kamper SJ, Apeldoorn AT, Chiarotto A, et al. Multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation for chronic low back pain. Cochrane Back and Neck Group, ed. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. September 2014. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000963.pub3

8. Chou R, Deyo R, Friedly J, et al. Noninvasive Treatments for Low Back Pain. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2016. Accessed April 2, 2019.

9. Liu L, Skinner M, McDonough S, Mabire L, Baxter GD. Acupuncture for Low Back Pain: An Overview of Systematic Reviews. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015;2015:1-18. doi:10.1155/2015/328196

10. Yeganeh M, Baradaran HR, Qorbani M, Moradi Y, Dastgiri S. The effectiveness of acupuncture, acupressure and chiropractic interventions on treatment of chronic nonspecific low back pain in Iran: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2017;27:11-18. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2016.11.012

Photo by Parker Whitson on Unsplash


This post is brought to you by Lois Nethery, acupuncturist and Chinese medicine herbalist at Ocean Acupuncture in Curl Curl on Sydney's Northern Beaches.

Disclaimer - Ocean Acupuncture is a natural medicine centre of independent health practitioners. The views expressed in this blog are the author's only and do not necessarily reflect the views of all Ocean Acupuncture practitioners. The information presented in this blog, and on the Ocean Acupuncture website, is for interest and educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for health or medical information or advice. For health or medical advice, please consult your health professional.

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