Acupuncture For Back Pain?

I’ve heard that acupuncture can help relieve back pain. Do you recommend it for this?

– October 6, 2017

Yes. Acupuncture definitely can help ease back pain, although it doesn’t necessarily address the root cause of the problem. Back pain – specifically low back (lumbar) pain – can be acute or chronic. Acute back pain usually occurs as a result of injury, although the activity that leads to the injury may be as commonplace as housework or gardening. Most cases are due to strain on the bones, muscles, and ligaments of the spine. Symptoms are usually muscle aches but can include shooting or stabbing pain, limited flexibility and range of motion, or trouble standing up straight. Most cases resolve on their own without treatment. Those lasting more than three months are considered chronic.

Studies have shown that both real and sham acupuncture can effectively treat low back pain and that both work better than standard medical care. A study published in 2009 and funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) included 638 adults with chronic low back pain who had never had acupuncture. The participants were randomly assigned to four groups. Those in group one received individualized acupuncture customized for each person. Group Two received acupuncture aimed at points deemed generally effective for low back pain. Group Three received sham acupuncture – the needles didn’t actually penetrate the skin. Group Four received standard medical care. The participants who received acupuncture (including the sham procedure) were treated twice a week for three weeks and then once a week for another four weeks. Periodically over the following year the researchers assessed all the participants and asked them about their symptoms.

At 8 weeks after treatment, those in all three acupuncture groups had improved significantly compared to those in the standard care group, and the benefits continued for a year, diminishing over time. This remained true whether the participants had customized, generalized or sham acupuncture. At issue, of course, is why real acupuncture didn’t work better than the sham treatment.

Acupuncture may help you, but I recommend that anyone dealing with this problem read one or both books on back pain by the late Dr. John Sarno, who for many years was a physician and professor of rehabilitation medicine at New York University. Dr. Sarno believed that most back pain stems from a condition he called tension myositis syndrome (TMS). Myositis means muscle inflammation. According to Dr. Sarno, TMS is a combination of muscle spasm and inflammation stemming from an unbalanced pattern of nerve signaling to nearby muscles and interference with their blood supply. Dr. Sarno explained his theory in his books Healing Back Pain: the Mind-Body Connection (Warner Books, 1991) and Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain (Warner Books, 1998). He described how to resolve TMS by taking advantage of the mind/body connection to change patterns of thinking, feeling and handling stress. It works.

In addition to acupuncture and reading Dr. Sarno’s books, you can find approaches I recommend for easing back pain here.

Andrew Weil, M.D.



Richard L. Nahin et al, “Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. September 2016,

Daniel C. Cherkin et al, “A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture and usual care for low back pain.” Archives of Internal Medicine, May 11, 2009, doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2009.65




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