Judy Bowen-Jones

Acupuncture for Back Pain and Sciatica

Back Pain, Lumbago and Sciatica

Back pain is the most common condition treated by acupuncture.

Back pain may involve the muscles, nerves, bones, joints, discs, soft tissues and other structures in the back. Most commonly, back pain is in the lower back (lumbago), but it may be felt anywhere from the neck down to the hips. Back pain may be acute (lasting less than 6 weeks), sub-acute (6-12 weeks) or chronic (over 12 weeks). The pain may be intermittent or constant, stay in one place or radiate to other areas. It may be a dull ache extending over a wider area or a sharp or burning sensation in a more specific area. Back pain may radiate into the arms or legs and include symptoms of tingling, weakness or numbness, suggesting nerve involvement.

Most cases of back pain are not caused by serious damage or disease but by minor sprains, strains or injuries, or a pinched or irritated nerve. Back pain may be triggered by bad posture while sitting or standing, bending awkwardly, or lifting incorrectly. If your back pain is associated by any “red flag” symptoms, such as rapid weight loss, chest pain, urinary problems, fever or problems with feeling or movement, seek urgent medical advice.

Sometimes, back pain can be caused by an injury or disease, such as a slipped disc (when one of the discs in the spine is damaged and presses on the nerves), whiplash (a neck injury caused by sudden impact, such as a car accident), frozen shoulder or ankylosing spondylitis (a long-term condition causing pain and stiffness where the spine meets the pelvis) or sciatica. If there is not a clear cause, back pain is described as ‘non-specific back pain’.

Most cases of back pain will get better on their own. It is important to remain active and continue daily activities as far as possible. Conventional treatment includes pain relief medication and application of hot/cold packs. Treatment of chronic back pain may include use of stronger pain killers, acupuncture, exercise classes, manual therapy such as physiotherapy, osteopathy or chiropractic, cognitive behavioural therapy, and in very severe cases, referral to a specialist pain clinic or possibly surgery.

About Sciatica

Sciatica, also called sciatic neuritis, sciatic neuralgia or lumbar radiculopathy is a set of symptoms including pain caused by compression of one of the five spinal nerve roots of each sciatic nerve, where they emerge from the spine in the lower back, or compression of the left or right or both sciatic nerves along their pathway to the lower limbs. Symptoms include low back pain, buttock pain, and numbness, tingling, “pins and needles”, pain or muscle weakness in various parts of the leg and foot. Typically, symptoms only present on one side of the body.

Sciatica may be due to compression of the sciatic nerve roots by a herniated (torn) or protruding disc in the lower back, spinal stenosis or compression/irritation of the sciatic nerve by other local structures, such as the piriformis muscle of the buttock.

Acupuncture for Back Pain & Sciatica

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence of the NHS recommends acupuncture for the treatment of non-specific chronic low back pain in adults (NICE Clinical Guideline 88, 2009).

The World Health Organization lists low back pain and sciatica as conditions/symptoms for which acupuncture has been shown in clinical trials to be an effective treatment (WHO, 2003).

Acupuncture can help back pain and sciatica sufferers by:
  • Stimulating production of natural pain killers in the body (endorphins)
  • Changing pain processing in the brain and spinal cord
  • Improving muscle stiffness and increasing mobility by increasing local microcirculation
  • Reducing inflammation and swelling
  • Improving sciatic nerve blood flow
  • Promoting regeneration and repair and improving conduction of the sciatic nerve
  • Reducing the use of medication for back complaints
  • Reducing stress and anxiety associated with painful complaints

Back pain in pregnancy – Acupuncture is safe for use in pregnancy and thus a helpful alternative to medication in providing relief from back and pelvic pain in pregnancy.

See also:

Treating Back Pain & Sciatica

“Low back pain is among the most common conditions treated with acupuncture in the UK and acupuncture can be very effective…..that’s why the NHS recommends acupuncture for the treatment of non-specific low back pain.

Depending on your condition, your treatment for back pain will likely start with therapeutic massage. During the treatment I may use both traditional and contemporary types of acupuncture, to help address the underlying imbalances which contributed to the cause of your back pain and to help provide you with pain relief. If appropriate I may also use ear acupuncture techniques to help increase your pain relief between treatments.

Low back pain affects almost half of us at some time in our lives. Whilst it is not usually serious, it can be very painful and debilitating. The best way to avoid getting back pain is to keep your back and abdominal muscles toned and strong. Regular yoga or pilates can improve your flexibility and strengthen your back muscles.”


Maciocia, G. 2005. The Practice of Chinese Medicine. Lower back-ache and sciatica. 605-630. Churchill Livingstone

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence clinical guideline 88 – Low back pain. (May 2009) www.nice.org.uk/CG88

World Health Organization. Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials (2003), 87pp. Full report http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/pdf/s4926e/s4926e.pdf

Research Fact Sheets

For more information see the British Acupuncture Council Research Fact Sheet below.