Q/A About Acupuncture & Lower Back Pain

Facts About Lower Back Pain

  • Back pain, including lower back pain, is a very common reason for employees taking time off of work.
  • Also, back pain is one of the most common reasons for doctor’s office visits.
  • There are millions of lower back pain sufferers. Approximately 50% of working Americans have back pain.
  • While there are several treatment options available, back pain is the #1 reason that patients seek acupuncture.
  • Your muscles, ligaments, joints, and bones are easily injured. Your back is complicated and it’s possible to injure yourself even without strenuous activities or heavy lifting.
  • Simple daily activities often contribute to back pain. Sitting at your desk, sleeping or lying on the sofa in the wrong position, lifting objects (whether heavy or lightweight) or stretching your muscles can all cause back injury or lower back pain and tightness.
  • Sciatica, skeletal irregularities, and many other health conditions can make you more likely to suffer from lower back pain.


How does acupuncture for lower back pain work?

Acupuncture originated in Chinese medicine. Here’s the traditional Chinese medicine theory as to how acupuncture works:

  • For least 2,500 years—maybe even as long as 7,000 years—Chinese medicine practitioners have been performing and refining acupuncture.
  • The Chinese medicine theory is based on chi or qui, which is your vital energy or life force. Your chi flows through your body via pathways called meridians. 
  • Your chi needs to circulate through your body freely. 
  • When your chi is balanced and flowing freely, it will promote growth, healing, and restoration. But chi can become “blocked” and cause lower back pain or other health problems.
  • To solve the problem of blocked chi, acupuncturists use fine needles at specific points on the body. This restores the flow of chi and promotes optimal health and wellbeing.


However, not all doctors and scientists subscribe to the Chinese medicine theory, so there are a few other theories:

  • Some Western doctors believe that the acupuncture needles stimulate nerves, connective tissue, muscles, or glands.
  • One theory is that acupuncture stimulates your nerves and sends your body’s own natural painkillers (neural hormones like beta-endorphins) to reduce discomfort.
  • Some practitioners believe that acupuncture stimulates the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to produce extra hormones that relieve inflammation and pain.

No one is 100% clear on how acupuncture works, but it’s likely that the answer is more complex than we think. Even after thousands of years of acupuncture treatments, the medical field and Chinese medicine practitioners are still learning about acupuncture and how it helps the human body. 

Why should I try acupuncture for my lower back pain?

If you are looking for a gentle, therapeutic solution to your lower back pain, acupuncture is a great choice. Maybe you’ve tried other traditional treatments—like icing your back, resting, doing specific exercises or taking anti-inflammatory medications—and they did not work as well as you’d hoped. Maybe you’re resistant to the idea of taking stronger painkillers that could cause negative side effects. If that’s the case, you are a great candidate for acupuncture.


What training do acupuncturists undergo?

The required training depends on what country you live in. In some places, acupuncturists are also licensed physicians. They’re required to have a master’s degree in acupuncture or Oriental/Chinese Medicine, and they’ve also taken post-graduate clinical courses at the doctoral level. In some places, a three-year master’s degree program is sufficient to become an acupuncturist.

Whenever you go to a new acupuncturist, it’s always a good idea to ask them about their university education, their training, and their years of experience in the initial consultation. That way, you can make an informed choice about their expertise.


What is an acupuncture treatment like?

Many people are curious about what goes on during an acupuncture treatment. To ensure that you’re relaxed and feeling in control during your first appointment, it’s a good idea to know what it is like ahead of time. This is a typical acupuncture appointment:

  • If you’re visiting the acupuncturist to treat lower back pain, you will lie face down on a padded massage table.
  • Once you’re situated and comfortable, your acupuncturist will place approximately 5 to 20 needles into your back. They will put the needles at very specific locations depending on your health needs.
  • While they are inserting the needles, you may feel almost nothing, or you might feel some mild discomfort.
  • You’ll have to remain still anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes while the needles remain in the acupuncture points. The acupuncturist will probably leave the room and let you relax during this stage.
  • After the time is up, your acupuncturist will return to take the needles out.
  • If needed, they will insert new needles into different insertion points and you’ll repeat the same process over again.
  • After removing the needles, your acupuncturist will swab the insertion points to eliminate the chance of infection and to speed up healing. The tiny punctures will heal quickly—you probably won’t notice pain at the insertion points after your appointment.
  • You’re free to go about your day! Many patients report feeling either relaxed or invigorated after their acupuncture treatment.


Do I need to prepare for my appointment?

No, there’s isn’t much preparation involved. The only thing to consider is that you may want to wear loose clothing that makes it easy for the practitioner to access your lower back area. You might need to wear a gown during the treatment.


How many treatments will I need?

It depends on your individual needs. In most cases, you’ll need at least 2-3 to a week, probably more if your lower back pain is serious. Most of the time, acupuncturists suggest having more frequent sessions at the beginning of the treatment plan—often for the first few appointments—and then spacing out appointments more as your condition starts to improve.


How do acupuncturists know where to place the needles?

  • Prior to your first acupuncture appointment, your acupuncturist needs to have a consultation with you.
  • They will talk with you and ask what symptoms are, where your lower back pain is occurring, and several more questions to help them figure out the optimal treatment plan and the best needle placement for your specific condition.
  • Then, they will place the needles on the correct acupuncture points—which are predetermined, specific points on the human body.
  • In traditional Chinese medicine, there are about 2,000 acupuncture points, all of which are connected by meridians. Your acupuncturist will choose points that will unblock the right meridians and restore the flow of chi in your body.
  • Acupuncturists study for a minimum of 3 years to learn all the appropriate acupuncture points and to learn the best ones to use for different conditions.
  • With a good, experienced acupuncturist who knows how to use the right needle placement, you’ll experience relief from your lower back pain and enjoy a more balanced sense of wellbeing.


How long will my appointment take?

Not too long! In most cases, once the needles are inserted, it will take about 15 minutes for the treatment to take effect. Sometimes the needles will need to stay in for longer, but not more than 30 minutes. Most of the time, your entire appointment will take about 30-45 minutes, though it can depend on the complexity of your injury or health condition.


How big are acupuncture needles for the back?

  • Most acupuncture needles are about .00325 inches in diameter. That’s a lot smaller than the average hypodermic needle or sewing needle!
  • And, acupuncture needles normally come in just three different sizes: one-half inch, one inch, and one-and-a-half inches long.
  • But don’t worry about the length of the needle—your acupuncturist won’t insert them very deep into your skin.


Does acupuncture hurt?

No, acupuncture is usually gentle and painless. Sometimes you’ll experience a tingling or a mild ache, but it should not be painful. And afterwards there might be mild bruising or minor soreness, but this is rare.

This may surprise some people who have never had acupuncture before, but that is because there are common misconceptions about acupuncture needles. Most people picture the type of needles used for injections or getting their blood drawn, but acupuncture needles are very different:

  • Acupuncture needles are ultra-fine, similar in diameter to a human hair. 
  • As a result, a prick from an acupuncture needle is much less painful than getting a shot or getting blood drawn.
  • With a flexible, tapered design, acupuncture needles glide smoothly into the skin.

In short, when the right needles are used by an experienced acupuncturist, you should feel very minimal discomfort.


Can acupuncture cause bleeding?

No, not usually, although very minor bleeding occurs in some acupuncture patients. The needles are very fine and smooth, and they do not tend to cause bleeding. The only exception is in patients who are on high doses of blood thinners or patients who have a bleeding disorder like hemophilia. These patients should take caution when considering acupuncture as a treatment, because they are at higher risk of bleeding when the needles are removed.


Is there a risk of infection?

Not in the vast majority of cases. Acupuncturists use sterile, one-time-use needles and are careful to make sure everything remains clean and sanitary. Although the needles do puncture your skin, the punctures are extremely tiny and will heal quickly.


Will I be sore after getting acupuncture?

Some people experience mild soreness after their acupuncture treatment. If this happens to you, the soreness will probably go away in 24 hours or less. Some people experience some bruising as well, but again, it tends to be mild.


Who is a good candidate for acupuncture?

Acupuncture can help almost anyone! If you have lower back pain or other health issues, it is likely that acupuncture could help you. Many people are curious if acupuncture is safe for children, pregnant people, and elderly people. Here are the answers:

  • Yes, acupuncture is safe for kids. If you are considering acupuncture for your child, make sure to consult with their pediatrician and try to find an acupuncturist who is experienced with children.
  • Yes, acupuncture for pregnant women is quite common and usually considered to be safe. Even so, if you’re pregnant, you should ask your obstetrician their thoughts before setting up an acupuncture appointment.
  • And finally, acupuncture is safe for elderly people, but they should take caution if they have any of the following conditions: bleeding disorders, pacemakers, or a prescription for blood thinner medications. 

In short, there’s good news for back pain sufferers: as a therapy for lower back pain, acupuncture is suitable for most patients!


Who should not get acupuncture?

  • If you have a bleeding disorder like hemophilia, don’t get acupuncture. Despite their tiny size, the needles could cause bleeding and bruising in patients with bleeding disorders.

You’re likely a good candidate for acupuncture as long as the previous conditions don’t apply to you! To ensure that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for your unique needs, your acupuncturist will consult with you and ask you questions before your first treatment.

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