I can spot them coming from a mile away. They walk into my clinic hunched over like they’re 100 years old. They ease themselves slowly into their chair in the waiting room. When it’s time to get up, they carefully plant their legs, use their arms, and creep back to their feet. They move slower then the second crusade getting from the waiting room to the treatment room, and need a fair amount of help and coaxing getting up onto the treatment table. These are my patients who suffer from acute low back pain.
Pain in the lower back is one of the most common problems acupuncturists see in the clinic. It can be severe enough to lay some people out flat on the floor, or it can show up as a general achiness that never seems to quit. Either way, low back pain has the ability to ruin your life.
In Chinese medicine, there are generally three main causes of low back pain. The first is considered an invasion by a pathogen, which is a fancy word for something a little like bad weather in your body. The most common pathogen related to low back pain is dampness, and comes from living in a cold damp climate, or spending your time living or working in a cold or damp building. Dampness comes from the ground and tends to affect the lower parts of your body, much like water flowing downward. Your ankles swelling up at the end of the day is also a kind of dampness in the lower body.
How do you know if it’s dampness messing with your lower back? Well, dampness is heavy. You may experience a sensation of heaviness; much like your back or lower body is waterlogged. Another telltale sign that dampness is the culprit behind your lower back woes is that the pain is strongly related to changes in the weather. Just like Aunt Edna, whose bunions acted up when the weather changed, if your low back pain gets worse when the weather changes, it’s considered a pathogen—and almost always dampness.
To complicate the dampness thing, you can have damp cold, in which the pain is worse in the cold weather and feels better when you put heat on it. Or you can have damp heat, with a sensation of heat in your lower back that feels better when you ice it.
A second cause of lower back pain in Chinese medicine is a weakness of some kind in the Kidney organ system. The Kidneys live in your lower back, and dull, chronic low back pain is a hallmark symptom of a deficient Kidney. In this case, the pain is usually not so severe, is more chronic, and may be accompanied by knee pain or weakness.
When your Kidney is weak, it can be a Kidney Yin deficiency or a Kidney Yang deficiency. In general, a Kidney Yin deficiency is accompanied by mild signs of heat like red cheeks, night sweats, thirst, and waking with a dry, sore throat. Kidney Yang deficiency is associated with symptoms of feeling cold, especially at your core, and water retention.
A third cause of low back pain is trauma. This usually means you know how you hurt your back—a fall, lifting something heavy, twisting and reaching for soap in the shower, or an actual injury. This kind of lower back pain is usually pretty severe—the kind that lays you out flat on the carpet. It is also usually acute, meaning that you haven’t had it for years and years.
Over time, regardless of the cause, unresolved low back pain tends to become chronic. In this case, you have a general stagnation of energy and blood. This just means that the circulation in that area is less then stellar, and probably needs some help for your back to heal—ideally, from acupuncture.
In general, low back pain responds well to acupuncture, and will cost you less than the price of an X-Ray, MRI, or medical assessment. Furthermore, with acupuncture you will begin getting your back treated on the very first visit, rather than waiting for tests to come back or for a referral to the physical therapist. A practitioner of Chinese medicine will use acupuncture to ease our pain, but may also incorporate the use of Chinese herbs, heat, cupping, electric stimulation of the area, and massage.
A couple of things you can do at home to ease the pain while your back is acting up include:
-Apply heat to your low back. The only exception to this is if your low back feels warm, then apply ice.
-Get out of the cold and damp. If it’s cold outside, bundle up or stay indoors until your back calms down. If you work in a cold office or underground, use a space heater to stay warm.
-Create some movement by getting a massage. Or coax, cajole, or plead with your partner or someone you know to give you a low back rub.
-Gently stretch your back if the pain is not acute or stabbing. (If so, skip this one.) Try lying on your back, gently bend your knees and bring them up to your chest.
-Sleep with a small pillow under your knees to maintain the natural curve of your spine. If you sleep on your side, put the pillow between your knees. If you sleep on your face, you shouldn’t be.
In most cases, with a little help from your acupuncturist, and a little self-care, you’ll be walking tall and moving quicker in no time.