Study: Acupressure Eases Chronic Lower Back Pain

Data reveals positive effects of self-administered acupressure on fatigue and pain
November 30, 2020 Updated: November 30, 2020

Did you know that chronic lower back pain is the leading cause of disability, worldwide? Back pain can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or activity level, and is responsible for more than 264 million sick days from work in a given year—that’s two lost work days for every full-time worker in the United States.

Experts estimate that around 80 percent of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives, and the cost to Americans in annual health care costs, lost wages, and diminished productivity exceeds $100 billion. The costs to individuals are equally grievous, measured in fatigue, pain, poor sleep, and diminished quality of life.

Opioids, a common prescription for lower back pain, have contributed to a dangerous epidemic of pain pill addiction, a crisis with astronomical costs, both in dollars, and devastating effects on lives.

In an effort to contribute useful, nonpharmacological interventions for chronic low back pain (CLBP), researchers at Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan conducted a randomized pilot trial on the effects of acupressure to treat CLBP.

Study Evaluates Acupressure for Back Pain

Participants in the six-week trial were randomized into three groups of around 20 individuals each, receiving either relaxing acupressure, stimulating acupressure, or their usual care routines. Eligibility was determined based on geographic proximity to the study facility, as well as self-reported or previously documented medical records of low back pain persisting for at least three months prior to commencement of the study.

Eligible participants were over 18 years of age and reported a minimum 4 out of 10 score on the Pain Bothersome Scale, and minimum 3 out of 10 fatigue severity score. Each was able to move without an assistive device and operate a smartwatch used to collect study data, among other criteria. None of the eligible participants received acupuncture or acupressure in the preceding 12 months.

Participants met at the Michigan facility and were instructed on how to collect personal biological data relevant to the study, as well as how to self-administer either a relaxing acupressure session or a stimulating acupressure session, based on group assignment. Control group participants carried on with their normal self-care and pain management practices.

Once trained, participants returned home to perform a seven-day baseline analysis of their back-pain levels and usual pain management practices. Data was collected via smartwatch and self-assessment, measuring physical activity and any pain and fatigue experienced. Study monitors followed up with weekly phone calls. After the six-week study period, all participants attended a post-test clinic visit and the seven-day home self-analysis was repeated.

Acupressure Stimulates Healing Energy and Relaxes the Body

Study participants in the two test groups self-administered acupressure for around 30 minutes per day to specifically chosen acupoints based on group assignment. Acupoints are sites on the body used in acupuncture manipulation that may stimulate or soothe specific organs and systems within the body.

Relaxing acupressure was applied to five acupoints thought to be effective in reducing fatigue by alleviating insomnia. Stimulating acupressure was applied to six acupoints associated with energizing effects. Acupoints in both relaxing and stimulating acupressure were chosen by consensus of four acupressure practitioners and were based on previous studies by the team.

During the trial, participants rated their levels of fatigue, pain, sleep quality, and overall disability using standardized indexes for each criterion. The predominant profile in the sample group was middle-aged (42), female, white, and overweight, with normal to mild depression.

Pain and fatigue were listed as moderate, with opioids being used to manage chronic pain. Sleep was generally poor, with 85 percent of participants reporting “significant sleep disturbance” in the prior year. Overall disability was 8.7 out of 24 points on the Roland Morris Scale.

Self-Administered Acupressure

Data analysis identified positive effects of self-administered acupressure, both relaxing and stimulating techniques, on fatigue and pain reported by CLBP patients. The positive improvements in pain were statistically significant with an average 35.5 percent pain reduction experienced by both acupressure groups when compared to the control group.

Fatigue levels improved significantly from stimulating acupressure, but not relaxing acupressure, as compared to usual care. There were no significant differences among the groups in terms of sleep quality or disability level, nor any significant adverse effects.

Lead author of the study, Susan Murphy, ScD, OTR, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Michigan Medicine, explained in a news release:

“Compared to the usual care group, we found that people who performed stimulating acupressure experienced pain and fatigue improvement. Those that performed relaxing acupressure felt their pain had improved after six weeks.”

Murphy emphasized the usefulness of self-administered acupressure, performed with fingertips in a safe, non-penetrative manner, versus acupuncture, which uses needles to stimulate acupoints and requires a skilled practitioner. “Although larger studies are needed, acupressure may be a useful pain management strategy given that it is low risk, low cost, and easy to administer,” Murphy said.

While results are preliminary, study authors encouraged further study across a broader array of health concerns, particularly when chronic pain is a factor. “Better treatments are needed for chronic pain,” Murphy said. “Most treatments offered are medications, which have side effects, and in some cases, may increase the risk of abuse and addiction.” The study is published in its entirety in December 2019, Volume 20, Issue 12 of the journal Pain Medicine.

Acupressure: A Safe Way to Treat Pain and Energize Your Body

Acupressure is a safe, noninvasive therapy that can be self-applied anywhere, anytime, without need for equipment or extensive training.

Useful for a boost of energy any time fatigue sets in, acupressure has been useful as a therapeutic intervention for chemotherapy-induced nausea, as an aid in treating the psychological and physical symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, and to reduce blood pressure and improve sleep in patients with high blood pressure and insomnia.

To learn more about nonpharmaceutical interventions for chronic pain, consult the research database, the world’s most widely referenced, evidence-based natural medical resource.

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