Acupuncture for Children With Back Pain

Can acupuncture help treat chronic pain caused by spinal conditions? According to new research, just one acupuncture session can provide significant benefits, improving pain, nausea, and quality of life.

When a child has chronic pain, such as back pain, providing effective relief can be difficult. Pharmacological drugs often times have numerous side effects and many children still experience nausea and a decreased quality of life because of their condition. Fortunately, non-pharmacological therapies can be useful options to consider, like acupuncture.
Young boy holding his back in pain.When a child has chronic pain, such as back pain, providing effective relief can be difficult. Photo Source:

About Acupuncture

A form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) dating back over 3,000 years, acupuncture is an ancient technique of inserting thin needles at specific points on the body. Acupuncture therapy is a popular alternative medicine in the US, and for good reason. The process can elicit a deep physiological response from the central nervous system, restoring the nerves, relieving stress and nausea, and curbing pain symptoms naturally.

For years, acupuncture therapy has been tested with a variety of ailments, but just recently, researchers in Chicago decided to test the effectiveness of acupuncture on young patients suffering from painful spinal disorders. The researchers found that after just one session, acupuncture's relieving benefits kicked in right away, improving the patients' lives considerably.

The Study

Fifty-five patients took part in the study (69% female; ages 5-20); with different causes of chronic pain, mostly musculoskeletal (75%). Many of these conditions were spinal-related disorders, including:

  • Scoliosis refers to an abnormal curvature in the spine, which can cause neurological pain, paresthesia (tingling sensation), and other serious effects. Children with scoliosis may require spinal bracing, physical therapy, and/or surgical intervention.
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis, or JIA, can be a  distressing condition to live with, as joint inflammation can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. The disease can affect the spine's facet joints, and may cause loss of functional ability.
  • Chiari malformation is a structural defect affecting the cerebellum, an area of the brain that controls balance. This can cause unnatural pressure on the brain stem, leading to loss of flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Symptoms may include neck pain, loss of balance, muscle weakness, and dizziness.

Just one acupuncture treatment appeared to improve pain symptoms across the board for the children, as well as improve nausea and quality of life scores. Over the course of the full trial, which included 8 treatment sessions in total, the patients' pain, nausea, and quality of life measurements continued to progressively improve. The parents of the children also noticed these improvements, reporting that their children were even performing better in school and other daily activities.  

Is Acupuncture Safe for Kids?

While some children may be intimidated of the needle therapy used in acupuncture, the technique is known for its safety, with very few medical contraindications. There are other, less invasive options to consider as well, according to Nicole Heuschkel, LAc, from the Monmouth Pain and Rehabilitation Center in Red Bank, New Jersey.

"We can achieve similar results through the use of acupressure. The use of points are the same, but instead of needles, a gentle pressure is applied with the practitioner's finger." Another less invasive technique is cupping therapy, where cups are used to gently lift the skin and create a suction that stimulates blood flow to the affected area, a kind of "reverse massage," as Ms. Heuschkel calls it.

young boy receiving cupping treatmentYoung boy receiving cupping therapy. Photo Source:"This increases circulation, manipulates muscle fibers, and draws out toxins and stagnation from the designated area being worked on. I use this with patients who have deep rooted muscular pain and also incorporate it into detox treatments."

Potential Sports-Related Spinal Conditions in Children

Painful back problems unfortunately can be common for children, particularly if they take part in competitive sports. Some common back pain problems include:

  • Spondylolysis. A spondylolysis occurs when a bone at the back of the spine (pars interarticularis) cracks or fractures. A stress fracture injury may affect young athetes (adolescents) who participate in sports that strain their spines. Gymnastics, tennis, cheerleading, football, soccer, and volleyball are types of sports that have been associated with spondylolysis.

pars interarticularis, lumbar spineA spondylolysis occurs when a bone at the back of the spine (pars interarticularis) cracks or fractures. Photo Source:

  • Spondylolisthesis. Sometimes, the vertebra of the back actually can "slip" out of place, which is what doctors refer to as spondylolisthesis. This often happens in the lower part of the back, the "lumbar spine" region. This shouldn't be confused with a "slipped disc" though, which occurs when one of the spinal discs in between the vertebrae ruptures.

Extreme Sports and Heavy Backpacks

Vertebral fractures and other back problems can happen in children who you like extreme sports, such as skateboarding, mountain biking, and skating. Falling to the ground, even when falling squarely on the feet, transfers stress to the spine, increasing the risk of injury.

Loading up a backpack with heavy textbooks also can be a daily strain on a child's back and shoulder muscles, leading to bad posture, muscles spasms, and stiff neck. Because of this, a backpack should really never be more than 10% to 15% of a child's body weight.

The study was supported by a grant provided by Rush University's Medical Center Women's Board. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Updated on: 11/12/19
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