According to the National Institutes of Health, low back pain is the second most common neurological ailment in the United States, after headache . Most cases of low back pain resolve on their own without any specific treatment. Patients whose pain persists are generally treated with some combination of heat and cold, medications, exercises, and physical therapy. But many back pain sufferers, especially those with chronic or recurring back pain, turn to nontraditional treatments, such as acupuncture.

Acupuncture is an ancient oriental technique in which practitioners place needles at specific points on the skin to relieve pain. Studies have shown that acupuncture may relieve chronic low back pain in the short term, but there is little evidence regarding its long-term effectiveness.

In a study published September 15, 2006 in the British Medical Journal Online First , researchers compared a short course of acupuncture to usual care for the long-term treatment of chronic low back pain. The researchers found no significant differences in pain level between the treatment groups at one year. At two years, however, there was a small but statistically significant difference in favor of the acupuncture group.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 241 men and women, ages 18-65 years, who suffered from chronic low back pain. One hundred sixty patients were randomly assigned to receive ten individualized acupuncture treatments, which took place over three months. The remaining 81 patients received usual care, which consisted of some combination of physical therapy, spinal manipulation, medications, and back exercises. At the beginning of the study, and again at three, 12, and 24 months, the patients’ back pain was assessed on a scale of 0 (the most pain) to 100 (no pain). The patients also reported their use of pain medications at 12 and 24 months.

There was no significant difference in pain level between the two treatment groups at 12 months. At 24 months, however, the acupuncture group enjoyed a small, but significant reduction in pain, compared to the usual care group. In addition, at 24 months, the acupuncture group was significantly less likely to be taking medication for low back pain. There were no serious adverse events in the acupuncture group.

How Does This Affect You?

This study found a small but significant long-term benefit of acupuncture over usual care for chronic low back pain. Although this is encouraging, it is not clear whether this small improvement in pain level translates into actual functional improvements for back pain sufferers. It is also not known when it is best to begin acupuncture treatment and whether repeated courses of acupuncture treatment would be beneficial.

If you decide to pursue acupuncture to treat your low back pain, ask your physician for a referral or check or visit the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) to find a fully qualified practitioner in your area. If you live in a state that requires licensure of acupuncturists, be sure your practitioner is properly licensed and credentialed.