Chinese Medicine for Back Pain


My first anatomy teacher had a doctorate in neuroanatomy. He was a chiropractor as well. It seems reasonable to assume that he understood back pain better than most. He said that a practitioner could always do well treating back pain for two reasons. One is that there is so much of it going around and the other reason was that 80% of back pain resolves on its own with or without medical intervention.

This article is for the 20% who’s pain has not gone away all on its own.

Back pain is commonly considered a nerve impingement syndrome. The way it works is that there’s some kind of structural problem that prevents the nerves from exiting the spinal cord through the spinal vertebrae and out into the body. When there is something pinching one of these nerves as it exits the spine it causes pain. The common term for this problem is called “pinched nerve.” Now you know why.

One way in which doctors determine if there is a nerve impingement going on is by having the patient lean to the right, then to the left to see if that has any effect on the pain. If it does, then it seems pretty clear that there is a pinching of the nerve going on and if that pinching can be relieved, the pain will go away along with it. That’s just one way of testing for a nerve impingement syndrome. This test isn’t always the end-all diagnostic tool.

Removing the obstruction to the nerve should remove the nerve pain. But it doesn’t always work, or else it requires a surgery which is expensive at best and dangerous at worst.

Chinese medicine sees these pains as one of a few possibilities. Let’s take a look at those possibilities and talk a little about the suggested treatment for each. Perhaps you’ll recognize your own situation below and be able to see an acupuncturist/herbalist to treat it.

Qi Stagnation

Qi is pronounced “Chee” and is sometimes spelled Chi. This is basically the energy that circulates throughout your body and does stuff for you like keep you alive, etc… This Qi flows through a network of channels and meridians. This sounds much like our neurological system. If push came to shove, we could say that this Qi stagnation is the pinched nerve syndrome. But its kind of strange, because acupuncture is very adept at treating this frequent cause of back pain without having any effect on the mechanics of the situation. We simply insert needles near the location of the pain as well as a few other strategic locations to stimulate the movement of qi in the desired area and the pain goes away. But we don’t do any manipulation of the spine, no surgery to remove a herniated disc, no nothing but some thin needles inserted in the area of the pain to stimulate the flow of Qi and the pain goes away. Kind of makes you question the whole theory behind this nerve impingement diagnosis, doesn’t it?

Qi stagnation lower back pain is most commonly found when the problem is aggravated by stress. It is sometimes found in women who have painful periods or else the pain is more apparent just prior to and during the period. In this case, again acupuncture or herbal medicines are the treatment of choice. In particular, you may see some improvement with your monthly back pain if you consider taking some Tian Tai Wu Yao San.

Cold Damp Stagnation

Another cause of Qi stagnation is the invasion of cold or dampness into the acupuncture channels that go up and down the spine. In Western culture we talk about catching a cold. In Chinese medicine we can catch a damp too. This damp and cold can end up in the meridians and slow the flow of Qi which causes pain. For instance, if cold or damp weather aggravates the condition, then it is likely that you’ve got some cold or dampness stuck in the channels of the back impeding the flow of Qi. This is actually a common form of arthritis. A great herbal formula for this is called Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang. I encourage you to track down that formula and try it out, but only if the problem is aggravated by cold or damp weather. Otherwise it won’t help, and may even hamper your healing.

Blood Stagnation

There are two main causes of blood stagnation, one is that there was some local trauma such as lifting up something too heavy for you, or some sport’s injury. Any specific trauma such as a “sprain and strain” or “pulled muscle” to the back will give rise to what we call blood stagnation. The treatment principle is the same as the Qi stagnation. We just get the blood moving and the pain goes away. We may also chose to use some herbs to dispel the blood stasis. Blood stasis is the local inflammation, bruising, and yuchy purple thick blood that is found at the site of the trauma. The usual formula used for something like a pulled muscle type of back pain is called Huo Luo Xiao Ling Dan (Fantastically Effective Pill to Invigorate the Collaterals) modified slightly for back pain.

Damp Heat

This pathology can cause radiating pain that actually circles the lower back down into the groin area. This kind of symptom may suggest some problems that would be better addressed by Western medical attention. Check in with your MD and if your pancreas, liver or kidneys are okay, go visit your practitioner of Chinese medicine, we have some great answers for you.

Basically, this is a back pain, normally in the lower back that is associated with a kind of infection in the urinary tract or other area in the lower abdomen. This might be kidney stones, this might be a bladder infection. This is often some urogenital disorder that may include a local infection of some sort.

Herbal medicine is often times employed to dry the damp and clear the heat. Formulas such as
Jia Wei Er Miao San (Augmented Two Marvel Powder) often help to get rid of any sort of inflammatory process giving rise to the pain.

Kidney Pathology

Like the damp heat problem listed above, this is not a nerve impingement syndrome but an issue that deals with the organs found in the lower back. Those are the kidneys. Kidney pathologies run the gambit from stones, to a deficiency of Yin or Yang in the body.

Yin deficiency tends to include lower back ache that is a long term problem, six months minimum with no history of trauma. It just started hurting one day and never went away. Other symptoms of Yin deficiency include hot flashes, night sweats, tinnitis, irritability, restlessness and the feeling that your hands and feet are too hot. This particular back pain is likely going to be aggravated by being on your feet for long periods of time. Acupuncture treatments would be consistent with stimulating the kidney functions and herbal medicines such as Liu Wei Di Huang Wan modified for back pain would be employed to treat the root cause of the pain. I myself have used this particular formula and have found rather immediate benefit from taking it. Usually whenever you have a “deficiency” of anything, it can take anywhere from weeks to months to address. However, I was astounded to find this formula removing my pain inside of a few hours. Keep in mind of course, that I get to take herbs whenever I want, so I tend to address these problems before they’ve had a chance to really settle in for months or years.

A deficiency of Kidney Yang could also give rise to lower back pain aggravated by being on your feet for long periods of time. Obviously, the worse the deficiency, the less time required to cause pain or aching. Other symptoms of Kidney Yang deficiency could include early morning diarrhea, cold hands and feet, fatigue, pale face, hearing loss, feeling cold all the time, frequent urination, infertility, and low libido. You were okay with it till that last one, weren’t you? :)

Herbal medicines for this Kidney Yang deficiency type low back pain might include Zuo Gui Wan modified for low back pain or one of the other patent formulas designed specifically for lower back ache due to a deficiency of Kidney Yang.

Most of the herbal formulas mentioned in this article are available at pharmacies that carry pre-made Chinese medicines in pill form. Another way in which a trained Chinese medicine herbalist would use these formulas is as the base of a more complex formula that not only takes into account the things I’ve mentioned so far in this article, but other signs and symptoms that you might not consider related to your back pain, but very well might be. An intelligently written formula will treat the root cause of the pain as well as all of its manifestations, not just the back pain alone.

Formulas written specifically for the patient tend to be a little more expensive than the pills you’ll find in your local Chinatown, but then they tend to be more focused to your specific needs and often times can work better. Once a formula is written, the prescription can be filled at a Chinese herb pharmacy in the form of raw, or bulk herbs that would need to be taken home and brewed into a tea for consumption. Some of us use powdered extracts instead of raw herbs and put these extracts into capsules for more easy consumption. Both are effective.

Backaches are a common pathology among people everywhere and thanks to the Westward expansion of traditional Chinese medicine, people everywhere are coming to appreciate the age old medical wisdom of the Orient, especially in regards to back pain.

Last modified: August 27, 2009  Tags: , ,  В·  Posted in: Herbology