Chinese Medicine for Back Pain
My first anatomy teacher had a doctorate in neuroanatomy. He was
a chiropractor as well. It seems reasonable to assume that he understood back
pain better than most. He said that a practitioner could always do well treating
back pain for two reasons. One is that there is so much of it going around and
the other reason was that 80% of back pain resolves on its own with or without
medical intervention. This article is for the 20% whose pain has not gone away
all on its own.
Back pain is commonly considered a nerve impingement syndrome.
The way it works is that there's some kind of structural problem that prevents
the nerves from exiting the spinal cord through the spinal vertebrae and out
into the body. When there is something pinching one of these nerves as it exits
the spine it causes pain. The common term for this problem is a "pinched nerve."
One way in which doctors determine if there is a nerve
impingement is by having the patient lean to the right, and then to the left in
order to see if that movement has any effect on the pain. If it does, then a
nerve is being pinched. If that pinching can be relieved, then, presumably, the
pain will go away along with it. It is important to note that this is just one
way of testing for a nerve impingement syndrome. This test isn't always an
end-all diagnostic tool.
While removing the obstruction to the nerve should remove the
nerve pain, it doesn't always work. Surgery, which is expensive at best and
dangerous at worst, may be required. Chinese medicine sees these pains as having
several possible etiologies. An examination of these causes and some suggested
treatments to alleviate the pain are discussed below. Perhaps you'll recognize
your own situation and be able to see an acupuncturist/herbalist to help treat
Qi is pronounced "Chee" and is sometimes spelled Chi. This is
basically the energy that circulates throughout your body. This Qi flows through
a network of channels and meridians. This sounds much like our neurological
system. If push came to shove, we could say that Qi stagnation is the pinched
nerve syndrome. But this is not entirely accurate because acupuncture is very
adept at treating this frequent cause of back pain without having any effect on
the mechanics of the situation. We simply insert needles near the location of
the pain and at a few other strategic locations to stimulate the movement of qi
in the desired area and the pain goes away. We don't do any manipulation of the
spine, perform surgery to remove a herniated disc, or perform any other invasive
procedure and, yet, the pain is relieved. This begs the question - Is the nerve
impingement theory the correct explanation for back pain?
While debating the cause is interesting for theorists, it does
little for the sufferer. Left untreated, Qi stagnation can lead to blood
stagnation, and what was a dull ache that radiates outward from the central
location can become a very sharp fixed pain. Qi stagnation lower back pain is
sometimes found in women who have painful periods. Again, in this case,
acupuncture is the treatment of choice.
Another cause of Qi stagnation is the invasion of cold or
dampness into the acupuncture channels that go up and down the spine. In Western
culture we talk about catching a cold. In Chinese medicine we can also catch a
damp. This damp and cold can end up in the meridians and slow the flow of Qi and
cause pain. For instance, if cold or damp weather aggravates the condition, then
it is likely that you've got some cold or dampness stuck in the channels of the
back impeding the flow of Qi. This is actually a typical form of arthritis. A
great herbal formula for this is called Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang. However, this is
only appropriate if the problem is aggravated by cold or damp weather. If your
diagnosis is incorrect it won't help, and may even hamper your healing. That is
why it is recommended that you see a qualified acupuncturist/herbalist who can
give you an accurate diagnosis.
There are two main causes of blood stagnation; one is that there
was some local trauma. This could be caused by heavy lifting, a sport's injury,
or perhaps even an automobile accident. Any specific trauma to the back will
give rise to what we call blood stagnation. The treatment principle is the same
as the Qi stagnation. We just get the blood moving and the pain goes away. We
may also choose to use some herbs to dispel the blood stasis. Blood stasis is
the local inflammation, bruising, and purple thick blood that is found at the
site of the trauma.
Yun Nan Bai Yao is a commonly used herbal formula that is used to
heal bruising. It is sold in capsule form and powdered form. You'll want to take
the capsule form if the skin isn't broken, and the powdered form sprinkled right
on to the wound if there is bleeding present. For the form that comes in
capsules, you'll want to be sure that is says "in capsules" on the package. The
spelling on that package is slightly different. It's called "Yunnan Paiyao".
Same thing inside. Its 100% San Qi or Radix pseudoginseng, an herb that has
proven to be remarkably effective for bleeding and blood stagnation conditions.
The other cause of blood stagnation is a long history of Qi
stagnation. The Qi is said to move the blood. Should the Qi remain stagnant for
long enough, then the local body fluids that are supposed to be flowing begin to
stagnate as well. We might also see some emotional component in this particular
pathology - for instance, a long history of frustration, resentment or some
other really bitter emotional pathology. We all get frustrated once in a while
and that can give rise to the Qi stagnation type of back pain, but if it goes on
for long enough it becomes more tight, compacted. In this case, the body begins
to really manifest that stagnation in the form of lumps, tumors, sharp pains or
other blood circulation problems. Other formulas might be better to treat this
particular issue and once again, it is recommended that you consult a trained
Chinese medicine herbalist who would be able to direct you to the appropriate
This pathology can cause radiating pain that actually circles the
lower back down into the groin area. This kind of symptom may suggest some
problems that would be better addressed by Western medical attention. Check with
your MD and if you don't have any serious pancreas or liver pathologies, then go
visit your practitioner of Chinese medicine, we have some great answers for you.
Basically; this is a back pain, normally in the lower back, that
is associated with a kind of infection in the urinary tract or other area in the
lower abdomen. This might be kidney stones, or this could be a bladder
infection. In any case, it is often some uro-genital disorder that may include a
local infection of some sort. Herbal medicine is often times employed to dry the
damp and clear the heat. Herbal medicines again would be used to treat this
condition, though the formula itself would be chosen based on other signs and
Like the damp heat problem listed above, this is not a nerve
impingement syndrome but an issue that deals with the organs found beneath the
skin in the lower back. Those are the kidneys. Kidney pathologies run the gambit
from stones, to a deficiency of Yin or Yang in the body. Yin deficiency tends to
include lower backache that is a long-term problem, six months minimum with no
history of trauma. It just started hurting one day and never went away. Other
symptoms of Yin deficiency include hot flashes, night sweats, tinnitus,
irritability, restlessness and the feeling that your hands and feet are too hot.
Acupuncture treatments would be consistent with stimulating the kidney functions
and herbal medicines such as Liu Wei Di Huang Wan would be employed to treat the
root cause of the pain.
A deficiency of Kidney Yang could also give rise to lower back
pain. Other symptoms of Kidney Yang deficiency would be early morning diarrhea,
cold hands and feet, lack of energy, pale face, hearing loss, feeling cold all
the time, frequent urination, low libido.
In either case, we would seek to strengthen these most important
organs to take away the lower back pain. This might take a little longer to
achieve than the Qi or Blood stagnation problems. But it still responds well to
treatment with acupuncture for the specific pains and herbal medicines that go a
little deeper into the organs to strengthen what is weakened. Herbal medicines
for this might include Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan or one of the other patent formulas
designed specifically for lower back ache due to a deficiency of Kidney Yang.
Most of the herbal formulas mentioned in this article are
available at pharmacies that carry pre-made Chinese medicines in pill form.
Another way in which a trained Chinese medicine herbalist would use these
formulas is as the base for a more complex formula. This prescription not only
takes into account the things I've mentioned above, but also other signs and
symptoms that you might not consider related to your back pain. An intelligently
written formula will treat the root cause of the pain as well as all of its
manifestations, not just the back pain alone.
Formulas written specifically for the patient tend to be a little
more expensive than the pills you'll find in your local Chinatown, but they also
tend to be more focused to your specific needs and often times can work better.
Once a formula is written, the prescription can be filled at a Chinese herb
pharmacy in the form of raw, or bulk herbs that would need to be taken home and
brewed into a tea for consumption. Some of us use powdered extracts instead of
raw herbs and put these extracts into capsules for easier consumption. Both are
Backaches are a common pathology among people everywhere and
thanks to the Westward expansion of traditional Chinese medicine, people are
coming to appreciate the age old medical wisdom of the Orient. This is
especially true with regard to the alleviation of back pain.