I have chronic low back pain. Would acupuncture treatments help?

Answers from Brent A. Bauer, M.D.

Many people who have chronic low back pain have found acupuncture to be helpful. But the scientific evidence to support these claims has been mixed, partly because it can be difficult to devise a good form of sham acupuncture for comparison.

Acupuncture for back pain involves inserting very thin needles to various depths into strategic points on your body. Scientific studies have indicated that sham acupuncture works just as well as real acupuncture for back pain. A key point, though, is that in several studies, both sham acupuncture and real acupuncture relieved low back pain better than having no treatment at all.

This could mean that sham acupuncture — placing needles in locations not associated with traditional treatment points — could be having an effect, or it could mean that the effects of acupuncture may be due in part to a placebo effect.

The research on acupuncture is growing, but interpreting it is still a challenge. For now, most studies seem to indicate that, for most people, acupuncture results in some beneficial effect with a low risk of side effects when provided by a well-trained practitioner.

So if other treatments haven't helped your low back pain, it may be worth trying acupuncture. But if your back pain doesn't begin to improve within a few weeks, acupuncture may not be the right treatment for you.

April 14, 2015