Treating back pain: an acupuncturist's approach

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Back pain is one of the most common reasons that people seek out complementary therapies like acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic. Thankfully, acupuncture can help big time! Research shows that acupuncture helps relieve many types of pain, especially back pain. Acupuncture may even be more effective for acute low back pain than NSAID medications like Ibuprofen

But how does acupuncture work for back pain? Or, more accurately, how does Chinese medicine work?

Relief is not as simple as putting needles where it hurts. There are numerous causes of back pain according to Chinese medicine. We call the pain the “branch” symptom, and your deeper state of overall health the “root” of the symptom. For lasting pain relief, we must treat both the branch and the root. All pain is due to a blockage of Qi, or energy, flow - which means that things like oxygen exchange and blood flow may not be as they should be. In the early stages of pain this is usually due to tense, inflamed or strained muscles. In later stages, deeper structures like nerves, vertebral discs, or the vertebrae themselves, may be involved. Following is a peek inside the way my Chinese medicine mind works when it comes to treating back pain. 

To promote circulation, induce muscle vacillations (little twitches which help the muscles relax) and stimulate tissue repair, I use various needling techniques near the site of pain. These techniques depend on which muscle groups are involved and how much disc space there is between the vertebrae. I also look for visual clues such as scars or varicosities (enlarged, twisted veins at the skin surface), which indicate places of impaired circulation. It’s also important to assess the overall quality of the soft tissue. For example, how elastic and hydrated, warm or cold it might be, both at the sight of the pain and beyond, especially in the legs and ankles. This is often where the cause of what we call channel obstruction - a type of pain syndrome - begins. 

In addition to acupuncture, I may also use other modalities to help promote circulation and reduce pain and tension. Acupuncture combines beautifully with tui na (Chinese medical massage), cupping therapy, gua sha (a type of skin friction), and moxibustion, a practice of burning the herb mugwort over the skin's surface. We Chinese medicine practitioners have a lot of tools on our toolbox.

Chinese medicine relates the entire length of the back side, literally from head to toe, to two primary channels. Helping people understand the connection between body parts they’ve been conditioned to sense as separate from each other, and how to care for these related body parts to take stress off the back, is often very helpful. Being conscious of this broad connection while walking and breathing can help relax chronically tense muscles while strengthening forgotten ones.

Symptoms are just part of the story - we want to find the cause.

In addition to addressing the local area of pain, we Chinese medicine practitioners are obsessed with figuring out the underlying cause of your pain pattern. For instance, maybe you always get a low back/sciatic flare up in the spring. The seasonal timing of this flare is no coincidence in Chinese medicine. We know that the channel associated with sciatic pain holds the body’s energetic potential for change, transition, and transformation, which is what spring is all about. We may diagnose and treat stagnation in this channel, but we will also work on warming, nourishing and supporting the other systems in your body that provide the push you need to get the deeply recessed energy of winter awakened and flowing throughout your whole body.

Or maybe you’re a person who always gets low back pain before, during or after your period. The timing of your back pain in relation to your menstrual flow is very important, as it tells us whether your energy, as it relates to your blood, is more full and stuck or more depleted and stuck. This will also relate to your emotional state around your period, which we can help keep in balance, even if we’re focusing primarily on your back pain.

Your emotions play a role too!

Lastly, there’s another very common but complex cause of back pain: emotional stress. Most people tell me that when they feel stressed their neck and upper back muscles tense up. But did you know there’s another set of muscles in the groin closely linked to the “fight or flight” stress response that can also tense up? The muscle pair known as the iliopsoas connects the 12th rib to the hip bone from top to bottom and front to back. One theory suggests that during times of high stress, which might unconsciously threaten our sense of safety, the ilopsoas goes into chronic spasm in an effort to return us to a more protected, fetal-like position. This tilts the pelvis, causing low back pain.

I suspect involvement of the iliopsoas when low back pain is one-sided, or worse when lying down or going from sitting to standing. In this case, acupuncture can not only treat the structural causes of back pain, but also the apparent (or unapparent) emotional factors as we help regulate the nervous system. 

I know, you’re still wondering, “But how does the needle work?”

That’s what everyone wants to know. Basically, each acupoint is a tiny gateway that allows us to access and modulate the two most basic life forces — expansion and contraction. Everything is effected by those forces via unseen energy networks, soft tissues, and peripheral nerves. By helping your body regulate these forces, acupuncture helps you experience a decrease in symptoms and improved wellbeing! 

That’s all I’ve got for now. If you want to know more, come in for a treatment!

Are you ready to use acupuncture to reduce pain and promote healing?

*The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

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