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Acupuncture: A Treatment for Lower Back Pain

Kelley Capps

Outline: click on a topic to go to that section
How Does Acupuncture Work?
What claims are being made about the effectiveness of acupuncture?
Studies that prove the effectiveness of acupuncture

Chronic lower back pain is a major health disorder in the world today (Mendelson, Selwood, Kranz, Loh, Kidson, Scott, 1983). It can cause many physical, mental, and emotional problems on the victim (Mendelson, Selwood, Kranz, Loh, Kidson, Scott, 1983). Many people find their work so unbearably painful that they often have to stay home. Others experience depression, inactivity, and social isolation (Kaplan, Sallis, Patterson). Treatments range from the conventional methods such as medication and surgery to the alternative or unconventional methods such as acupuncture. However, only a small percentage of low back pain patients have the type of condition for which surgery can be used so acupuncture is becoming more popular (Lehmann, Russell, Spratt, 1983).

Acupuncture works to relieve two types of lower back pain. Lower mechanical pain is caused by disc inflammation or disc deterioration and lower compressive back pain is caused by aggravated spinal nerve roots or a herniated disc ( Although the practice of acupuncture has only recently begun in the United States, many doctors are referring their patients to acupuncture because of it's effectiveness, especially for low back pain (

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Chinese physicians discovered over 5,000 years ago that the arousal of certain areas on the skin affect the operation of the bodies organs and organ systems ( Acupuncture works to restore homeostasis to the body through the insertion of stainless steel needles into acupoints below the surface of the skin ( The body is made up of lines of energy called Qi, that "communicate from the exterior of the body to the internal organs and structures at over one thousand acupoints on the body"( The Qi energy joins all parts and functions of the body and fights diseases and symptoms arise when the energy is blocked ( The acupoints lie on the lines of energy, and the placement of a needle in an acupoint opens these lines and restores the energy, maintaining balance and relieving symptoms. ( Acupuncture also works to stimulate and revive the immune system in order to prevent future conditions (

What claims are being made about the effectiveness of acupuncture?

Acupuncture is beginning to appeal to many people because it is an effective treatment without drugs, surgery, or harmful side effects (http://www./ Most people claim to feel incredibly relaxed and many times tired after receiving this treatment (

Three studies in particular show the effectiveness of acupuncture for lower back pain. The first is a study that was conducted by Dr. John Handy in which 19 of the 73 patients studied were treated by acupuncture for lower back pain. Twelve of the patients had more than 50% of relief from their symptoms ( In conclusion Handy found that 63% of the patients with lower back pain had "good" relief from their pain (

Another study conducted by Garvey, Marks, and Weisel (1989) involved 63 patients with chronic low back pain. They discovered a 63% improvement rate for those treated with acupuncture rather than medication, while those on medication had only a 42% improvement rate (

The final study, conducted by MacDonald, et al (1983) involved two groups of people. One group received acupuncture for low back pain, and the other group received a "single-blind placebo-controlled design"( The group that received the acupuncture showed better relief of their back pain than the placebo group.

Another claim being made by acupuncturists is that acupuncture helps people recover from drug and alcohol abuse by reducing their withdrawal symptoms and relieving the depression, anxiety, and insomnia often associated with drug and alcohol abuse ( The needles are placed in the ear because the ear corresponds with the nervous system and the acupuncture supposedly works by altering the chemical levels in the body and acting on the nervous system (

Studies that prove the effectiveness of acupuncture

One study, conducted in 1983, was a single-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, where eight patients were treated by acupuncture and nine patients were treated by placebo (Macdonald, Macrae, Master, Rubin, 1983). All of the patients had received previous treatment by conventional methods and had felt no relief. The results of the study showed acupuncture to be strongly superior to the placebo (Macdonald, Master, Rubin, 1983).

A second impressive study involved 56 patients, all of whom had chronic low back pain (Zhang, Wang, 1994). The patients were stuck with the acupuncture needles in the various pressure points. The total effective rate, meaning of the patients treated, the percentage of those who found relief, was 98.3% (Zhang, Wang, 1994). This high rate could be attributed to the fact that this study was conducted in Beijing by Chinese acupuncturists. Acupuncture has been practiced in China for over 2300 years so the Chinese technique could be better than the American technique (Kuno, Cerqueira, 1995).

In a third study, 54 patients were placed into three separate groups (Lehmann, Russell, Spratt, 1983). One group received electroacupuncture or transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS). The second group received the placebo treatment, which was TENS with a dead battery. The final group received regular acupuncture. The final group received regular acupuncture. The results demonstrated that the regular acupuncture group had more relief of their pain on a day to day basis even after a three-month return physical (Lehmann, Russell, Spratt, 1983).

Finally, one especially interesting study was conducted on fifteen horses with chronic low back pain (Martin, Klide, 1987). The horses could not perform because of their constant pain, just as many humans cannot go to work because of their aching pain. All fifteen horses received acupuncture treatment along with injections of a .9% saline solution at the acupuncture point sites. The horses were treated once a week for nine weeks and at the end of the treatment thirteen of the fifteen horses had significant relief of their pain (Martin, Klide, 1987). Six to twelve months later after the final treatment eleven of the fifteen horses were still competing.

In conclusion, studies of acupuncture remain limited due to a lack of funding, and nation wide knowledge of the treatment remains limited as well, for acupuncture was introduced in the United States only recently ( The research on acupuncture proves this it to be a fairly effective treatment because the studies were generally very promising, even on horses. Acupuncture for low back pain should definitely be taken into consideration before surgery because it is safe and it does not involve any dangerous drugs. Hopefully, with the help of the world wide web, acupuncture will become more widely practiced in the United States because the results are promising.


Kaplan, Robert M., Sallis, James F. Jr., Patterson, Thomas A. Health and Human Behavior. McGraw-Hill: New York,

1993. 159-82.

Kuno RC, Cerqueira MD. (1995). Enhanced bone metabolism induced by acupuncture. Journal of Nuclear Medicine, 36(12), 2246-7.

Lehmann TR, Russell DW, Spratt KF. (1983). The impact of patients with nonorganic physical findings on a controlled trial of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation and electroacupuncture. Spine, 8(6), 625-34.

Macdonald AJ, Macrae KD, Master BR, Rubin AP. (1983). Superficial Acupuncture in the relief of chronic low back pain. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 65(1), 44-6.

Martin BB, Jr., Klide AM. (1987). Use of acupuncture for the treatment of chronic back pain in horses: stimulation of acupuncture points with saline solution injections. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 190(9),1177-80.

Mendelson G, Selwood TS, Kranz H, Loh TS, Kidson MA, Scott Ds. (1983). Acupuncture treatment of chronic back pain. A double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Medicine, 741), 49-55.

Zhang Y, Wang X. (1994). 56 cases of disturbance in small articulations of the lumbar vertebrae treated by puncturing the effective points- a new system of acupunctue.Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 14(2), 115-20.


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