BACKGROUND: Chronic back pain is a major public health problem and the primary reason patients seek acupuncture treatment. Therefore, an objective assessment of acupuncture efficacy is critical for making informed decisions about its appropriate role for patients with this common condition. This study addresses methodological shortcomings that have plagued previous studies evaluating acupuncture for chronic low back pain. METHODS AND DESIGN: A total of 640 participants (160 in each of four arms) between the ages of 18 and 70 years of age who have low back pain lasting at least 3 months will be recruited from integrated health care delivery systems in Seattle and Oakland. They will be randomized to one of two forms of Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) acupuncture needling (individualized or standardized), a ‘control’ group (simulated acupuncture), or to continued usual medical care. Ten treatments will be provided over 7 weeks. Study participants and the ‘Diagnostician’ acupuncturists who evaluate participants and propose individualized treatments will be masked to the acupuncture treatment actually assigned each participant. The ‘Therapist’ acupuncturists providing the treatments will not be masked but will have limited verbal interaction with participants. The primary outcomes, standard measures of dysfunction and bothersomeness of low back pain, will be assessed at baseline, and after 8, 26, and 52 weeks by telephone interviewers masked to treatment assignment. General health status, satisfaction with back care, days of back-related disability, and use and costs of healthcare services for back pain will also be measured. The primary analysis comparing outcomes by randomized treatment assignment will be analysis of covariance adjusted for baseline value. For both primary outcome measures, this trial will have 99% power to detect the presence of a minimal clinically significant difference among all four treatment groups and over 80% power for most pairwise comparisons. Secondary analyses will compare the proportions of participants in each group that improve by a clinically meaningful amount. CONCLUSION: Results of this trial will help clarify the value of acupuncture needling as a treatment for chronic low back pain. TRIAL REGISTRATION: Clinical Trials.gov NCT00065585.