Healthy Backs From A TCM Perspective

I recently gave a lecture at a Healthy Back Store location here in San Diego to help train the sales staff in ways to understand back pain from a broader perspective. I ended up teaching them about “Red Flags” in back pain. A red flag is some sign/symptom that hints towards a larger medical problem. For example how do you know if you have generalized low back pain due to a muscle strain or a kidney problem? I’ll leave it at that. Come to one of my lectures sometime to find out how.

But what I wanted to explore more with the team members and was short on time for was looking at “Healthy Backs from a TCM Perspective.” What is it in Chinese Medicine that makes for a healthy back? What basic concepts are involved? What types of problems arise from disharmony in the back? Read on to find out.

I think that most of you have seen those acupuncture charts with the man standing with all the lines and points all over his body. That model is the map of the “Meridian System.” The meridians are lines where the Qi flows and where the acupuncture points reside. If you look at the back you will see several lines extending all the way up the back. The most basic reason for there to be pain in the back, or anywhere in the body for that matter, is that there is some sort of stagnation of Qi somewhere along the meridian system. There is an old Chinese Saying which is also the motto of my acupuncture school, “Where there is stagnation there is pain… And where there is pain there will be stagnation.” (In Chinese pinyin: Pu tong su tong… Tong su pu tong.) But why you ask is there stagnation? Read on.

Perhaps the most common type of back pain and one which contributes significantly to the economy in the form of pain killers and muscle relaxants is that of the low grade, nagging low back pain. In the Chinese Medical system we say that the kidneys rule the low back. When the kidneys become deficient in Qi through overwork, stress, poor eating and sleeping habits, drug/alcohol use, and as the Chinese would have you believe too much sex (but I say , "make love not war!"), the low back also becomes weak and prone to injury. In order to avoid injury we need to have strong and flowing Qi coursing through our bodies. In states of deficiency this does not happen and we get sick and injured. The Qi becomes stagnated either slowly in chronic conditions or suddenly in injury states. We unfortunately live in a society where stress and stimulation is at a maximum. Even while “relaxing” on the couch we are playing shooter video games or watching high action violent television with amazing car chases, shouting and torture scenes. It is a far cry from sitting under a cherry blossom tree next to a babbling brook watching the flower petals blowing away in the wind. It is really no wonder why our backs hurt!

So now that we have set the stage for a deficiency in our kidneys and made ourselves prone to injury lets see what else affects our backs. Along with deficiency of Qi, deficiencies of other vital substances in the body like yin which moistens the tissues and tendons, and blood which nourishes the muscles can also leave us prone to injury. So when lifting that 80 pound bag of cement that we used to be able to throw around like it was a bean bag now just pulled something major and put you in bed on a load of soma and vicodin… Or better, in my clinic! Even things like osteoporosis leading to pain or even fractures are considered kidney deficiency cases. Besides ruling the low back, the kidneys are the influential organs of bone. A kidney deficiency leads to weak bones. Weak bones lead to injury and injury leads to pain and stagnation of Qi.

With all of these scenarios it is vital to address the underlying deficiencies as well as treat the acute pain affecting you at the moment. If I were to boil down the difference between mainstream medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine very quickly it is that mainstream medicine concerns itself primarily with the management of the manifestations of the problems and not with the problems themselves. It provides “relief” from symptoms while those symptoms reside on their own. It is Medical hand holding so to speak. TCM on the other hand both treats the symptoms and corrects the imbalance that led to the symptoms. After all, wouldn’t you rather not be laid up with back pain again next month? Vicodin and Soma just won’t help you in the long run.

In closing I want to leave you with a bit of clinical wisdom. I see clinically every day people with all kinds of medical problems. Deficiency of Qi, Yin, Yang, or Blood is at the core of most of them. These TCM concepts can lead to everything from low back pain as described here to impotence, to dizziness to high blood pressure. You name it. TCM can sort these patterns out very quickly and start you towards a path of healing the core problem.

A healthy back equals a healthy body. Listen to your body and call your acupuncturist today!