Back pain is a common condition which most people will experience to some extent during their lifetime. It is also one of the most common reasons why people come for acupuncture treatment.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are many different reasons why a person may be suffering from back pain. Let's take a closer look at some of causes of back pain in TCM and how acupuncture can help.
According to TCM, the state of our health depends on a substance called qi. It has many different functions within the body - warming, nourishing and protecting. In order to reach every part of the body, qi circulates in channels known as meridians.
Each organ has a corresponding meridian, allowing qi to flow through it and keep it functional. When qi is flowing freely, every organ, muscle and tissue will be healthy and work as it should. However, the circulation of qi can be easily be blocked causing qi stagnation.
One of the most common causes of qi stagnation is invasion by external factors known as the “six evils”. They include cold, heat, summer heat, dampness, dryness and wind. When cold, heat, dampness or wind are allowed to enter the body, they can block the channels and prevent qi from flowing smoothly.
Qi stagnation can also be caused by long term emotional stress and physical issues such as poor posture. Qi stagnation causes many different symptoms, but one of the most common is pain. The pain associated with qi stagnation is usually dull or aching in nature. It may come and go and can be relieved with heat, pressure and movement.
In TCM, blood has a close relationship with qi. Blood is responsible for nourishing qi, while qi helps the blood to move in the vessels. Because of this relationship, long-term qi stagnation can cause the blood to stagnate too. It becomes sluggish and cannot flow freely in the veins. This condition is known as blood stasis in TCM.
Like qi stagnation, blood stasis is a major cause of pain. However, the type of pain is different. Pain due to blood stasis is sharper or stabbing in nature. It is fixed in one area and will be aggravated by heat, pressure and movement.
One of the best examples of blood stasis is bruising. This type of blood stasis is caused by physical trauma which damages the blood vessels and allows blood to pool in one area. This causes the familiar symptoms of swelling, tenderness and loss of mobility.
So back pain caused by an injury may be due to blood stasis alone. However, it is more often due to qi stagnation and it is not unusual for the two conditions to exist together, causing a combination of different symptoms.
Invasion of Dampness and Cold
As we have already discussed, external, climatic factors can also lead to back pain. This can happen due to overexposure to extreme weather, living in damp conditions or a poor diet.
If dampness and cold combine within your body, they can cause blockages and pain. Your back may also feel cold and your limbs may feel heavy. This type of pain will be worse in cold or wet weather and responds well to heat packs or hot baths.
Invasion of Dampness and Heat
If dampness combines with heat, this leads to symptoms that western medicine would class as inflammation. There may be redness, swelling and heat on the surface of the skin. This type of pain is worse in hot or humid weather and responds well to ice packs.
Kidney Yin or Yang Deficiency
The Kidneys are located at the back of the body, and Kidney deficiency is a common cause of lower back pain in TCM. This type of back pain causes soreness and weakness of the waist area and is often accompanied by weak or painful knees.
If your back pain is due to Kidney deficiency, it is likely that you will have other symptoms throughout your body. These will vary depending on whether the yin or the yang aspect of the Kidneys is being affected.
Other symptoms of Kidney-yin deficiency include:
- Hot flashes or night sweats
- Hot hands and feet
Other symptoms of Kidney-yang deficiency include:
- Cold, pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Frequent urination
- Early morning diarrhea
- Low sex drive
The Meridians of the Back
In TCM, a number of important meridians pass over the back, and these can be used to help diagnose and treat back pain depending on its exact location. Qi or blood stagnation in a particular meridian will cause pain in a specific area, and this meridian can then be used to restore the flow and relieve the pain.
The Governing Vessel
The Governing Vessel, called du mai in Chinese, runs the entire length of the spine. It is one of eight “extraordinary meridians” which do not correspond to an organ, but have a special function within the body.
In TCM, the back is considered the most yang part of the body, and the Governing Vessel is responsible for all of the body's yang energy. If the body's yang energy is plentiful, the spine will be straight and strong, supporting the head like a pillar. However, if it becomes weak, the body's yang can collapse, causing the spine to bend and the head to hang forwards.
In cases of back pain caused by bad posture, it is necessary to restore the body's yang and strengthen the spine. This can be done by treating the Governing Vessel.
The Girdle Vessel
The Girdle Vessel, dai mai in Chinese, runs around the waist like a belt. It is the only channel in the body to run horizontally, encircling the others.
Like the Governing Vessels, this is an extraordinary meridian and is responsible for the balance between the upper and lower halves of the body. If the Girdle Vessel becomes dysfunctional, it can cause problems such as a strong upper body and weak legs. It is also good for eliminating damp-heat and treating pain in the sides of the body.
The Bladder Meridian
The Bladder meridian runs all the way down the back in two parallel channels either side of the spine. It has special points which can be used to directly influence the other organs, and is especially good for treating back pain due to Kidney deficiency.
The Gallbladder Meridian
The Gallbladder meridian runs from the neck, over the shoulders and down the sides of the body before traveling down the outside of the legs. It is useful for treating upper back and neck pain, and is also good for relieving back pain with sciatica.
Treating Back Pain with Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Back pain can be successfully treated with acupuncture and TCM in a number of ways. Acupuncture is good for restoring the flow of qi and blood and preventing stagnation. It also relaxes the muscles and relieves inflammation and pain. Local points on the back may be combined with points elsewhere on the body to provide a deeper level of treatment.
Chinese herbal preparations can be taken internally to help with expelling pathogens, moving qi and blood and strengthening the Kidneys. They can also be applied externally as oils or liniments which can provide pain relief directly to the affected area. Massage, stretches and exercises may also be added to your treatment program to keep your muscles flexible and strong.
Finally, you may be given dietary or lifestyle advice if needed. This will be tailored to your individual needs and incorporated into your daily regime to complement your treatment and provide sustainable, longer lasting relief from back pain.