Low back pain is so common that it is one of the most frequent reasons people give for missing work in the U.S.! In fact, almost everyone suffers from low back pain at some point in their lives. Structurally, the lower back bears the weight of the entire upper body. It is an area that is very susceptible to injury and as people age, the muscles and soft tissues lose their elasticity. The discs between vertebrae may also lose some of their cushion ability. When the spinal nerves are compressed or irritated, they cause pain. When you consider the posture most of us have at our jobs (i.e., standing for long periods or sitting at a desk all day), it is no wonder that the rates of this kind of pain are so high. Some of the causes of low back pain in western medical terms are: trauma, inflammation or infection of the joints, muscle strain or sprain, sciatica, narrowing of the spinal canal, bulging or herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, and other causes. Pregnancy, obesity, scar tissue, and poor posture are other factors that may contribute to low back pain. If back pain occurs with other symptoms (like fever or cough), it may be something more serious, so a physician should be consulted as soon as possible.
In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are associated with the lower back, since they are situated in this region. As we age, the kidney energy naturally declines, which explains the whitening of hair, the decline in libido, osteoporosis, and menopause, among other phenomena. Furthermore, the winter cold can impede the kidney energy. If the kidney energy is low, it might manifest as pain in the lower back. This is why older people are prone to low back pain and why it is exacerbated during the winter. People with deficient kidney energy are more susceptible to lower back injuries.
There are a few different syndromes associated with low back pain in Chinese medicine. General kidney deficiency, trauma, or overexposure to cold, damp weather may cause the pain. (Other diseases may coincide with low back pain, so these must be ruled out.) Understanding the underlying cause is essential and specific symptoms can help determine which points should be applied: the type of pain (e.g., sharp, shooting versus dull, achy pain, fixed versus moving pain), whether it is acute or chronic, aggravated or alleviated with movement, and the circumstances around its occurrence. In all cases, however, kidney points are employed to strengthen the lower back. Sometimes electrical stimulation, moxibustion or cupping can be applied in conjunction with the needles to further the healing process along. Tuina, or Chinese massage, and herbal remedies may also give relief. The acupuncture needles will help reduce any inflammation, release endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers), and increase local qi and blood circulation.
I often give instructions on stretching or light exercises for patients to do at home, and this is an important part of the therapy. Patients may have to change their ergonomic setup at work, their sleeping posture, or their shoes (i.e., stop wearing heels- sorry, ladies!). Lifestyle changes may also be necessary in order for full healing to occur. Whether you suffer from acute or chronic back pain, it’s worth trying acupuncture for relief. It’s one of the most common problems treated by Chinese medicine and much research is under way comparing acupuncture to pharmaceuticals and other modalities in the treatment of low back pain.