Elisabeth Bablin

Acupuncture has a long history of treating body pain as a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), though its effectiveness has been called into question by more modern methods. While the consensus among the scientific community is mixed, there is promising evidence that shows acupuncture to be effective in treating back pain.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a rich history that dates back thousands of years and has been used to treat a variety of ailments throughout China, East Asia, and more recently, the rest of the world. It includes but is not limited to acupuncture, acupressure, cupping, gua sha, tai chi, and herbal medicine. TCM and acupuncture deal with balance and the interconnectedness of people and their environment [6].

Acupuncture as a part of TCM has been used to treat back and neck pain for the thousands of years it has existed. Scientific investigations into its effectiveness are decidedly more recent. One such study published in 2006 tested the effectiveness of acupuncture on lower back pain on 298 patients who received 12 acupuncture treatments over the course of eight weeks. At the end of the eight week period, those who received acupuncture treatment noted significantly less lower back pain than those who had yet to receive treatment [1].

One specific group who may benefit from acupuncture is pregnant women. Another 2006 study performed acupuncture on 72 pregnant women between 24 to 37 weeks pregnant. Acupuncture treatments were given weekly or bi-weekly until birth or pain was no longer felt. 43% of the women who received acupuncture reported less lower back and pelvic pain while only 9 % in the control group reported the same [3].

Similarly, in 2018 a study conducted on women at a similar point during her pregnancy reported positive findings. The women were given acupuncture sessions until pain ceased or up to six sessions. Consequently, the data reported a statistically significant decrease in lower back pain among these women. This study also found that pain relief was directly correlated with the number of acupuncture sessions [5].

A third study displayed similar findings about the relationship between acupuncture and lower back and pelvic pain, as well as the adding that acupuncture could improve the emotional state and prevent energy loss throughout pregnancy [4].

A research group at the University of Maryland looked at electro-acupuncture and how it could be used to reduce inflammatory, neuropathic, cancer and visceral pain by stimulating “bioactive chemicals through peripheral, spinal, and supra-spinal mechanisms.” Opioids are one such chemical. When stimulated they increase serotonin and norepinephrine neurotransmitters, which in turn reduce GluN1 phosphorylation, decreasing pain. The study found a frequency of 2-10 Hz as the ideal range for reducing pain in electro-acupuncture as opposed to a greater 100 Hz [7].

These types of studies do have some significant shortcomings. Self-reporting pain levels is subject to individual biases. Acupuncture is not always performed in the same way, and it is possible that some methods of administration are more effective than others. One study found no statistically significant difference between patients who received TCM acupuncture and those who received “sham intervention minimal acupuncture [1]. The same results were reported in a different study, though they suggest that even needling the skin in a sham procedure can be pain relieving [2].

Acupuncture continues to be used to treat pain and its effectiveness is supported by research. Although there are a few conundrums in reporting pain levels and standardizing research done on the topic, results have been promising enough to support the healing effects of the practice.

This article has been reviewed by the Scientific Writing Team Lead of Esurgi : Ishtiak Ahmed Chowdhury


  1. Brinkhaus, B., Witt, C. M., Jena, S., Linde, K., Streng, A., Wagenpfeil, S., Irnich, D., Walther, H. U., Melchart, D., & Willich, S. N. (2006). Acupuncture in patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Archives of internal medicine, 166(4), 450–457. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.166.4.450
  2. Ernst, E., & White, A. R. (1998). Acupuncture for back pain: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Archives of internal medicine, 158(20), 2235–2241. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.158.20.2235
  3. Kvorning, N., Holmberg, C., Grennert, L., Aberg, A., & Akeson, J. (2004). Acupuncture relieves pelvic and low-back pain in late pregnancy. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica, 83(3), 246–250. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0001-6349.2004.0215.x
  4. Lund, I., Lundeberg, T., Lönnberg, L., & Svensson, E. (2006). Decrease of pregnant women’s pelvic pain after acupuncture: a randomized controlled single-blind study. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica, 85(1), 12–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/00016340500317153
  5. Martins, E. S., Tavares, T., Lessa, P., Aquino, P. S., Castro, R., & Pinheiro, A. (2018). Acupuncture treatment: multidimensional assessment of low back pain in pregnant women. Tratamento com acupuntura: avaliação multidimensional da dor lombar em gestantes. Revista da Escola de Enfermagem da U S P, 52, e03323. https://doi.org/10.1590/S1980-220X2017040303323
  6. Yuan, Q. L., Guo, T. M., Liu, L., Sun, F., & Zhang, Y. G. (2015). Traditional Chinese medicine for neck pain and low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS one, 10(2), e0117146. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0117146
  7. Zhang, R., Lao, L., Ren, K., & Berman, B. M. (2014). Mechanisms of acupuncture-electroacupuncture on persistent pain. Anesthesiology, 120(2), 482–503. https://doi.org/10.1097/ALN.0000000000000101