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Back pain health centre

Acupuncture

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Introduction

This information is for people who have a slipped disc. It tells you about acupuncture, a treatment used for a slipped disc. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Does it work?

We don't know if acupuncture helps with the pain caused by a slipped disc. There hasn't been enough research to tell us.

What is it?

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese treatment. It's a type of complementary or alternative medicine. If you have acupuncture, a trained acupuncturist puts sterile needles into your skin.

Traditional acupuncturists believe that acupuncture improves the flow of energy around the body. Some modern doctors think that putting needles in the skin could encourage the release of natural chemicals that block pain and help you feel relaxed. [35] Another theory is that acupuncture might work a bit like talking therapy. Discussing your situation with an acupuncturist and relaxing while the needles are put in might reduce anxiety, or help you cope better with pain.

How can it help?

We don't know if acupuncture can help with pain or sciatica caused by a slipped disc. There hasn't been enough research to say for certain whether it works, or how it compares with other treatments. [36]

There is some research showing that acupuncture might help about half the people whose back pain isn't caused by a slipped disc. [37] However, in this study, 'pretend' acupuncture (where the acupuncturist avoids specific acupuncture points and only puts needles just below the skin) worked just as well as traditional Chinese acupuncture.

How does it work?

It's not clear how acupuncture might work. One theory is that it stimulates the release of natural chemicals in the body that block pain. These chemicals are called endorphins and enkephalins.

Can it be harmful?

We don't know whether acupuncture for slipped discs causes problems. There is no good research to tell us.

However, acupuncture is used for lots of other health conditions, and we did find some information on acupuncture for other uses.

  • In one study, doctors and physiotherapists who used acupuncture to treat a variety of medical problems were asked if the treatment had ever caused a patient any harm. Out of 10,000 acupuncture treatments given, there wasn't a single case of serious harm. There were minor side effects, but these were fairly rare. For example, acupuncture caused bleeding in about 1 in every 30 treatments, and pain in about 1 in every 90 treatments. [38]

  • Another study looked at 34,407 acupuncture treatments given by professional acupuncturists. None of the treatments caused any serious harm. Again, there were some minor side effects, such as bruising in about 1 in 60 treatments, pain in about 1 in 80 treatments, and bleeding in about 1 in 250 treatments. [39]

  • There have been some reports of serious harm from acupuncture, such as injury to the nerves or lungs, and infections from dirty needles. These problems are very rare. [40]

Last Updated: June 21, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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