It can happen working in the garden, reaching for soap in the shower, or lifting a small child. One moment life is fine, and in the next instant, you’re down with unbearable back pain. You’re left wondering what just happened and how do you make it stop?
Another scenario is that you’ve never blown out your back in a dramatic way, but you struggle with a chronic, achy lower back. You know the kind…you’re never sure when it’s going to flare up, and you don’t know what’s causing it when it does. All you know is that it’s uncomfortable, it interrupts your sleep, and you want it gone.
It’s the rare person who has never suffered from any kind of pain in their back. Technology has caused dramatic changes in our collective posture, stress is an epidemic, and more often than not we struggle to find the time for self-care. It seems like our backs are the perfect target.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of underlying causes of back pain. In many cases, your Chinese Kidney system may be the source of the problem. While you may not have anything wrong with your actual kidney, your Chinese Kidney system may be out of balance. Beyond the metabolism of water, in Chinese medicine your Kidney is also the home to the vital substances of Yin, Yang, and Essence—something akin to your body constitution. When any of these substances become depleted, your Chinese Kidney, which is located in the small of your back, may become chronically achy. Beyond a sore lower back, a Kidney depletion may also present as weak or achy knees, ringing ears, hair loss, fatigue, bone problems, and premature aging.
Another cause of back pain in Chinese medicine is something called stagnation. Your health is based on energy. Every cell in your body produces this energy, which sustains life. In Chinese medicine, you need to have enough energy to fuel all your bodily functions, and that energy needs to flow freely. When you feel pain of any kind, it’s a signal that your energy is stuck. Think of it this way—many people carry stress in their upper back and shoulders. When things get bad, their shoulders and neck get tight—so tight that it begins to restrict the flow of blood and what we call energy. Over time, that restriction can cause radiating pain, headaches, and muscle knots—all signals that the circulation in that area has stagnated.
Lots of things can cause stagnation. Trauma is a big offender, whether from a fall, car accident, or lifting the baby wrong. Injury to the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and discs in your back can cause inflammation, tightness, and pain—all stagnant conditions. In addition, weather conditions such as dampness or cold can make your back seize up causing you a world of hurt. Changes in the structure or musculature of your back as you grow, exercise, and age may also be a source of stagnation in your back.
The bottom line is that there are a number of causes of back pain. The good news is that Chinese medicine offers a number of solutions. If you visit a practitioner of Chinese medicine, their first order of business is to diagnose what’s going on. Is it a Kidney thing? Is this a cold condition, or just a stagnation from tight muscles? With a diagnosis in hand, your practitioner will likely begin with an acupuncture treatment, as it can be incredibly effective in relieving your pain. Research on acupuncture has shown that it affects chemicals in your brain to increase the circulation of your body’s natural pain-killers, as well as to block pain signals going into your brain. In addition, where the needles are placed, inflammation is reduced.
Beyond acupuncture and depending on your diagnosis, your practitioner may also incorporate other healing tools into your treatment plan. This may include an herbal formula to strengthen your Kidney or increase circulation, heat therapy, cupping, or a hands-on bodywork called Tui Na. Your practitioner may also give you instructions for stretching, strengthening, or heating as home care. Finally, there are some things you can do to prevent back pain in the first place. Among them:
-Pay attention to your posture. When you are standing, your ears, shoulders, and hips should stack up one directly below the other. If you are spending long hours hunched over your computer, also spend some time opening up your chest. A simple way to do this is just lie on the floor with your arm stretched out to your sides, or you can stretch your chest open in a doorway.
-If you need to lift anything, make sure you do it correctly. Use your legs with the weight you’re lifting kept close to your body. Don’t try to bend over the weight, and don’t twist or turn while you’re lifting. In addition, if you’re moving something heavy, you’re better off pushing than pulling.
-Stretch and strengthen your core. Ask your practitioner or a physical therapist for a set of exercises and stretches that will keep your back flexible and strong.
-Avoid sitting for long periods. If you regularly spend long hours at a desk or driving, make it a point to stop, get up, walk around, and stretch. Your back will thank you.
-Watch what’s on your feet. Your shoes make a difference in your posture and the structure of your back. Nowhere is this more apparent than for women wearing high heels—they may be attractive, but throw your entire body out of alignment, shorten your calf muscles, and mess up your feet. Instead choose shoes with good arch support and heels no higher than about an inch.
-Sleep right. If you’re prone to back pain, it will be helpful to support the natural curves of your back while you sleep. If you’re a side sleeper, put a small pillow between your knees. If you sleep on your back, a pillow under your knees will help maintain your lumbar curve and take the strain off your back.