Back Pain Treatment with Acupuncture, Does it Work?

Are you looking for back pain treatment in Melbourne to help you return to an active, pain-free and healthy life? Acupuncture is a natural health care option for the treatment of back pain to help you restore movement to your muscles and maintain healthy joints.

At Dantian Health, acupuncture is often combined with other tools of East Asian Medicine including massage, moxibustion, gua sha or cupping. These approaches offer a natural, drug-free alternative for restoring movement and relieving back pain. Book an appointment online now to begin the journey of moving yourself out of pain.

This article will explore the common effects and causes of back pain, with tips to prevent onset. The evidence for back pain treatment options with Chinese Medicine will be explored.

What is the effect of back pain on a person?

The presence of back pain, whether low grade non-specific low back pain or acute severe pain, affects quality of life and limits the ability to perform normal everyday activities. Common symptoms may include:

  • Referral of pain leading to a diagnosis of neck pain or leg pain
  • Time off work
  • Inability to engage in their favourite sports and usual day to day physical activity
  • Unable to perform their hobbies
  • Difficulty being active with younger family members due to loss of function and mobility

1 in 5 experienced persistent back pain, with an additional group — almost 1 in 3 — who developed back pain over time. . These two groups were associated with greater pain limiting activity, disability, and depression, as well as increased healthcare and medication use.

Mayilee Canizares, Ph.D – Medical News Today 

The presence of back pain also affects mental health. The increased isolation can become a major contributing factor.

Both back pain and chronic back pain are associated with an increased likelihood of depression, psychosis, anxiety, stress, and sleep disturbances.

Dr. Stubbs –Medical News Today
How does back pain affect your life?x

What is the prevalence of back pain in Australia?

According to the Australian Pain Management Association, back pain is common. It estimated to be the third most common presentation in a GP clinic.

As much as 15% of the population currently experiences issues with back pain. That percentage is higher in those aged 65-74. Arthritis Australia observes that 80% of Australians experience back pain at some point.

Back pain is also a recurrent symptom, returning in around 34% of cases.

What are the risk factors for back pain?

Risk factors include:

  • Age – back pain is more common as we age
  • Fitness level – back pain is more common in people who are physically unfit
  • Pregnancy – shifting weight dynamics often lead to back pain
  • Weight gain – excess weight can place strain on the spine and back muscles
  • Occupation – jobs with repetitive, high load activities increase the chance of back pain
  • Stress – higher stress can lead to increased muscle tension, which in turn creates back pain

What are the common causes of back pain?

Non-specific low back pain along with chronic specific back discomfort arise from a variety of factors. Acute trauma, repetitive use, extended time in an uncomfortable position and poor posture are common back pain causes. Muscle or ligament strain is most commonly involved, though disc issues and skeletal irregularities can also contribute.

Underlying conditions can also lead to the presence of back pain. These may include osteoporosis or arthritis.

Weak or disengaged abdominal muscles is also a factor. This is because the back muscles must compensate to keep the body upright.

Acute back pain

Acute back pain is back pain that has been present for less than 6 weeks. This can arise from:

  • a traumatic injury due to direct external force on the back such as in a common sports injury
  • over flexion or overextension of the lumbar spine (esp. when cold) causing a muscle strain
  • improper lifting causing soft tissue injury
  • violent twisting or jarring of the lower back (esp. when cold)

Some common presentations of acute back pain include

Rib fracture

Rib fractures arise from a history of trauma. This trauma is generally easily identifiable eg sporting injury, car accident.

Rib subluxation

This is also known as a ‘costovertebral sprain’ or ‘popped rib’. This generally affects the 11th or 12th rib and presents with pain lateral to the spine

Chronic back pain

Chronic pain in the back is that which has been present for over 3 months. Chronic back pain can be a symptom of a more serious pathology such as

  • disc degeneration, disc injuries and herniation of discs
  • nerve impingement, often where the peripheral nerves leave the spinal canal at the facet joints occurring where a slipped disc presses and irritates the nerve. This can cause both local and sciatic pain
  • infection

These are not common but should be watched out for. See a GP for further exploratory investigation and imaging or blood tests if there is:

  • Signs of neurological change (eg numbness, tingling, shooting pain)
  • Fever
  • Unexplained weight loss or muscle weakness

Chronic back pain can result from underlying syndromes such as:

Ankolysing spondylosis

Ankolysing spondylosis is a chronic inflammatory joint disease. It involves stiffening and fusion (ankylosis) of the spine and sacroiliac joints. There is a suggested genetic component to Ankolysing spondylosis. The HLA-B27 genetic marker present in 70- 80% of sufferers.


Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine. This places strain on the supporting muscles.

Disc syndromes

As people age, there is a gradual deterioration of bone strength and muscle elasticity and tone. The intervertebral discs begin to lose their fluidity and flexibility. This decreases their ability to cushion the vertebrae resulting in degenerative disc disease.

The walls containing the disc can weaken, which in turn can lead to a disc bulge. The protruding disc places pressure on the nerve roots causing pain. This often also causes the surrounding soft tissue to tense and ‘guard’ the area as a protective mechanism which can cause further pain and loss of mobility.

The most common presentation from this is sciatic pain

A common neck pain cause can also be cervical disc herniation, a similar mechanism just further up in the in the cervical spine region

There are many other reasons why back pain may occur, consulting a practitioner can help to unravel these causes for you.

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Tips for the prevention of back pain

Some tips to prevent back pain include:

  • engage in regular, moderate exercise
  • try to avoid being stationary, sitting or standing, for too long
  • avoid sudden movements
  • reduce excessive heavy lifting, being mindful of good lifting techniques
  • having a supportive mattress to sleep on
  • wear flat shoes with supportive cushioning
  • attending to ergonomics of work station
  • consider the ergonomics of exercise equipment eg if you regularly commute by bike then check out these tips at

What are the back pain treatment options

There are few direct options for the treatment of back pain through a GP.

Pain relief medication such as paracetamol, NSAIDs or opioids or the use of muscle relaxants is the most common approach. Unfortunately, this only masks the symptoms and does not address the underlying issue.

This can be very useful to reduce the pain to allow for healing to occur. If the body is under stress from intense pain, it will struggle to recover. This may also prevent one from engaging in other treatment approaches.

The advice is for minimal bed rest to ensure regular light movement and activity. This keeps the affected area flexible and mobile.

It is generally preferable to explore non-surgical treatment methods to address back pain before more severe intervention such as spinal fusion is required. Gentle exercises or strength training programs may be helpful as prescribed by an experienced physiotherapist. Aerobic exercise classes or body weight exercises including pilates or yoga can help. Manual therapy that works directly on the soft tissue is often beneficial and may include osteopathy, massage, myofascial release work or acupuncture. In fact, acupuncture is recommended by JAMA as one of the first options to consider for both acute and chronic back pain.

Jama Recommendation For Low Back Pain
JAMA recommendations for low back pain – Patient Page

Most acute back pain will resolve within a few weeks. This assumes that the aggravating factors are no longer present. This does not help with pain in the short term, which treatment can help with.

The many tools of Chinese medicine can be very helpful for people with back pain.

Is acupuncture for back pain effective?

Acupuncture helps many people with back pain, so much so that we have seen an explosion of practitioners offering dry needling (a subset of acupuncture). There is good evidence to back up these results.

The Cochrane systematic review for the use of acupuncture and dry needling for back pain was last updated in 2005. Many more studies have been conducted since then.

They found that there existed a low quantity and quality of available evidence. This meant they could not make any firm conclusions at the time around the treatment of acute lower back pain.

Their research suggested acupuncture could be useful for chronic lower back pain in the short term. They found positive results when acupuncture was as an adjunct to other therapies.

A more recent systematic review by Lee et. al. in 2013 explored the use of acupuncture for acute pain. They noted the need for more research due to the limitations of their study and the available research.

Compared with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acupuncture may more effectively improve symptoms of acute LBP …  For pain, there exists inconsistent evidence that acupuncture is more effective than medication…. Compared with sham acupuncture, acupuncture may more effectively relieve pain

Lee et al Clinical Journal of Pain

A 2014 literature review explored noninvasive treatment for chronic lower back pain. The conclusion was that acupuncture had good evidence for efficacy and outcomes.

Acupuncture was found to be significantly more effective than either sham treatment or no treatment …  acupuncture may be a useful adjunctive treatment to other therapies for chronic low back pain

Wellington J Neuromodulation

A 2015 overview of systematic reviews concluded that

Acupuncture, either used in isolation or as an adjunct to conventional therapy, provides short-term improvements in pain and function for chronic LBP 

Liu et al Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine

As is a common theme with these reviews they noted issues with the reliability of evidence.

More efforts are needed to improve both internal and external validity of systematic reviews and RCTs in this area


Is cupping for back pain an option?

Moura et. al. in 2018 conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis into the use of cupping for chronic back pain. They concluded that cupping was a promising therapy for back pain. There is also a need for standardised application protocols to further improve the quality of research. In particular, they noted that

There was a significant reduction in the pain intensity score through the use of cupping therapy

Moura et. Al. Revista Latino-Americano De Enfermagem 

This followed the 2017 meta-analysis which showed significant improvement in VAS and ODI (but not MPPI) scales with cupping. Their findings were not reliable due to a high risk of heterogeneity and bias in the studies. They state that more robust studies are needed.  They did observe that

Cupping therapy is a promisingly effective and safe therapy method for subacute or chronic low back pain

Wang et al Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation

Wang et al Yuan et al 2015 conducted a meta-analysis into the use of Chinese Medicine for neck and lower back pain. They found low-level evidence that cupping was more effective than medication for lower back pain. They also found moderate evidence that it was better than usual care for pain and disability. 

Acupuncture, acupressure, and cupping could be efficacious in treating the pain and disability associated with CNP or CLBP in the immediate term

Yuan et al PLOS One

Is Gua Sha for back pain good?

There has not been a high level of studies into Gua Sha for back pain. Thus there are no current systematic reviews available to obtain a higher level of insight into the research.

There was a recent randomised control trial into the use of Gua Sha for chronic back pain. It calls for further, more rigorous studies to validate the findings that

Gua Sha appears to be an acceptable, safe, and effective treatment for patients with chronic low back pain

Saha et al Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice

Lauche et al conducted a randomised controlled study in 2012 into the use of Gua Sha for neck pain and chronic lower back pain. They hope to see more research conducted to confirm their findings that

Gua Sha may be an effective treatment for patients with chronic neck and low back pain

Lauche et. al. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine

Does Moxibustion for back pain help?

There is also limited research on the use of moxibustion alone for back pain.

A 2019 study in the Journal of Thai and Alternative Medicine compares acupuncture with moxibustion for back pain. For back pain from lumbar disc herniation nerve pain, both therapies showed similar improvements. This study is not blinded, so more quality research needs to be conducted to confirm this.

Heat wrap therapy for back pain, a form of moxibustion therapy, is recommended by the Australian Pain Management Institute. They recommended it above NSAIDs in the short term as it has less potential side effects.

Does massage therapy for back pain work?

A 2015 Cochrane Systematic review of 25 trials found evidence that massage helps to reduce pain, and improve function in chronic lower back pain cases. The evidence was considered of low quality, due to issues with creating effective blinded controls and measurements. This is because it is hard to provide an intervention that neither the giver nor receiver knows is a massage or not.

Does Chinese Medicine treat back pain?

As can be seen throughout the referenced studies, there is a positive indication for the use of Chinese Medicine for back pain.

A recurrent issue that is noted in these reviews is the quality of the research conducted. Issues commonly exist with bias and blinding, as manual intervention techniques are notoriously difficult to create double-blind sham treatments for. This article by John MacDonald is the essential beginning reading into the issue surrounding this type of scientific study into therapies like acupuncture.

Acupuncture for back pain in Brunswick, Melbourne

At Dantian Health in Melbourne’s inner north suburb of Thornbury, we use a range of modalities from the Chinese Medicine toolbox that can include acupuncture, gua sha, cupping, moxibustion and massage. A consultation will include a thorough physical examination, and identification of where referrals to your GP may be required for further diagnostic tests such as bone density assessment or the use of imaging techniques (Xray, ultrasound etc). We will then provide treatment plan options for the management of back pain to help you return to your active, pain-free and healthy life.

Dantian Health – Thornbury Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Clinic

Reclaim your health and restore vitality with responsive, holistic healthcare

What else would you like to know?

Thanks for reading this far. Have I missed your question? Was something unclear? Let me know in the comments below, I read and respond to everyone!

Photo of author

Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician. Educator.

Jason is the owner and principal practitioner at Dantian Health, providing consultations for Classical Chinese Herbal Medicine and Japanese Acupuncture in Melbourne, Australia.

He is a qualified acupuncture physician, Classical Chinese herbal medicine clinician, shiatsu practitioner and tuina therapist, Oriental therapies educator and director at the Australian Shiatsu College.

Jason's qualifications include:

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