Treating Back Pain with Acupuncture & TCM
By John Lally, L.Ac.
Chronic back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical attention. It has been
estimated that up to 80% of the world's population will suffer from back pain at some point in their
lives, with the lower back as the most common location of pain. Though most occurrences of back pain last less than two weeks, research has shown that recurrence rates
for low back pain can reach as high as 50% in the first few months following the first episode.
Why Use Acupuncture for Back Pain?
The use of acupuncture to treat back pain has increased dramatically in the past few decades,
based to a large degree on placebo-controlled studies that have validated it as a reliable method of
back pain relief. The results of a recent study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain provide
further proof that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for low-back pain, and that
acupuncture can maintain positive outcomes for periods exceeding six months or longer without
producing the negative side-effects that often accompany more traditional pain remedies such as
anti-inflammatory steroids or pain medication.
TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Definitions of Back pain
Kidney Chi Deficiency
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, the Kidney and Bladder acupuncture meridians govern
the back. When there is a deficiency in Kidney Yin or Kidney Yang this may have a negative effect on the
acupuncture channels on the posterior of the body resulting in weakness, stiffness and/or pain in the
Liver Chi Stagnation
The body's Chi (Vital Energy) must flow freely for abundant health. In TCM, the Liver organ governs the
free flow of Chi in all areas of the body including the upper and lower back. Any impediment to the free
flow of energy in the back will result in moderate pain and stiffness. As the Liver organ in TCM is
closely associated with emotions such as stress, frustration and anger – we would often observe case
histories where back pain is triggered or exacerbated by emotional triggers such as premenstrual syndrome.
Blood Stagnation in the Lower Back
As a severe form of Chi stagnation (above), blood stagnation or blood stasis in the lower back can
result in severe stabbing pain on movement or rest. This is a result of long term Chi stagnation which
eventually causes the flow of blood in the affected area to effectively become stuck. In TCM theory, the
Chi (especially Liver Chi) moves blood in the acupuncture channels – any impediment to the free flow of
Chi results in internal "friction" which almost often transforms into severe pain and stiffness. Blood
stagnation in the lower back may form as a result of physical issues such as injury due to a fall, impact,
exposure to cold wind or overwork, and emotional issues such as long term stress.
Invasion of Wind Cold
According to acupuncture theory, the Kidneys are susceptible to invasion of wind cold or damp cold.
This occurs when the lower back is frequently exposed to cold or damp weather resulting in depletion of
the Kidney Yang energies and as cold obstructs movement the eventual stagnation of Chi in the affected
area. Invasion of cold may be accompanied by symptoms such as feeling of cold, tightness in the lower back,
frequent urination and low energy.
Common Medical Causes of Back Pain
Lumbar Muscle Strain
Muscle strains are the most common cause of low back pain. Patients may or may not remember the initial
event that triggered their muscle spasm, but the good news is that most episodes of back pain from muscle
strains resolve completely within a few weeks.
A ruptured intervertebral disc, also called a herniated disc, is another common cause of back pain. How
to treat the back pain from a herniated disc depends on the particular individual and situation.
Discogenic Back Pain
Discogenic back pain is thought to be a common cause of low back pain. Discogenic back pain is the
result of damage to the intervertabral disc, but without disc herniation. Diagnosis of discogenic back
pain may require the use of a discogram.
Spinal stenosis causes back pain in the aging population. As we age, the spinal canal can become
constricted, due in part to arthritis and other conditions. If the spinal canal becomes too tight, back
pain can be the result.
Lumbar Spine Arthritis
Arthritis most commonly affects joints such as the knees and fingers. However, arthritis can affect any
joint in the body, including the small joints of the spine. Arthritis of the spine can cause back pain
Spondylolisthesis causes back pain because adjacent vertebra become unstable and begin to "slip." The
most common cause of spondylolisthesis is due to degenerative changes causing loss of the normal
stabilizing structures of the spinal column. If the spine becomes unstable enough, back pain can become a
About the Author
John Lally, Acupuncturist and clinic director at:
Blue Heron Acupuncture Clinic in Galway, Ireland.