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Acupuncture and Back Pain

There’s nothing worse than back pain. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, nine out of ten Americans suffer from back pain, and back pain that affects the lower back is one of the greatest causes of doctor visits each year.

Back pain has many characteristics. It can affect the upper back, neck, mid-back, lower back, or tailbone. Its nature can be aching, stinging, stabbing, or burning. Back pain can radiate to the shoulders or arms; conversely, it can radiate to the hip, knee, or foot. It can be chronic or acute.

Back pain has almost as many causes as it has characteristics. It can be caused by skeletal, muscular, or nerve problems. Most back pain has at least a small degree of emotional causative factors, although this aspect is seldom addressed publicly. Additional causes for back pain include weight gain, hormonal issues, disc degeneration, injury or trauma, prolonged illness, infection, or cancer.

In Chinese Medicine, the etiology of back pain is carefully tracked though a thorough intake. Often, x-rays or other diagnostic tests are used to confirm skeletal or synovial problems. Most acupuncturists use a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to treat back pain. Although specific treatment of back pain varies from person to person, a few general ideas about back pain and Chinese Medicine will help the layperson understand the basic tenets underlying treatment of back pain.

In Chinese Medicine, the back is governed by four specific meridians, or energy channels: the Kidney, or Shao Yin channel, the Bladder, or Tai Yang meridian, the belt channel, or Dai Mai, and the governing vessel, or Du Mai. Of the four, the Kidney meridian is of greatest importance.

The Kidney channel governs bones, and as such, controls the spine. Low back pain is usually related to Kidney deficiency, and is associated with the following symptoms: fatigue, coldness, or dull aching pain in the lower back relieved by warmth and exacerbated by activity and exposure to cold; frequent and copious urination, thinning dry hair, and knee or foot pain.

Both the Bladder and the Du channels follow the course of the spine and are associated with back pain due to their close proximity. The Du channel is characterized by the ability to stand erect. Postural or curvature anomalies (scoliosis, lordosis, kyphosis) are often associated with the Du channel. Because the Bladder channel is the Kidney channel’s yang partner, the Kidney channel is most often seen as the causative factor in back pain rather than the bladder channel.

The Dai Mai may play a part in back pain but only secondarily. The “belt channel” encircles the waist and holds emotions. The Dai Mai can become too full when individuals fail to process emotions. Pathologically, the Dai Mai can become too loose, causing the abdomen to become enlarged and the low back to bow, also known as lordosis or swayback. This in itself can cause back pain.

Whatever the cause, the treatment in Chinese medicine is acupuncture. Point prescriptions vary from practitioner to practitioner. Some prefer to insert needles directly into the lower back. Others prefer to use distal points (on the hands or feet) or to needle the specific acupuncture channel seen as the cause or the cure. For most patients, acupuncture brings immediate relief and long-term results.