Back pain is one of the most expensive and exhausting ailments of our time. It’s the 6th most costly condition in the United States, costing Americans at least 50 billion in health care costs each year (let alone the cost of missed work due to disability). It is the third most common reason for a visit to the doctors office (behind skin disorders and osteo-arthritis joint issues). For Acupuncturists, it is the #1 reason people show up at their door.
So does it really work? For those that turn to acupuncture, they can rest assured they are increasing their odds of finding relief. Acupuncture has been found to be effective for chronic pain, including low back pain. Not only is acupuncture more clinically effective than no treatment at short-term follow-ups that looked at measures of pain relief and functional improvement acupuncture was actually found to be substantially better than standard care in a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials that included around 20,000 patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain.
Acupuncture is also safe. In a cumulative review of more than 1 million acupuncture treatments, the risk of a serious adverse event with acupuncture was estimated to be 0.05 per 10,000 treatments and 0.55 per 10,000 individual patients. Most common side effects were minor, and included bleeding at the needle site and localized needling pain.
So how does sticking needles in the various points in the body actually help to alleviate back pain? The explanation according to Acupuncture theory involves the movement of stuck energy (qi) and blood in the body. Points along various energy channels are used to open pathways and redirect ‘traffic’ to promote a healthy flow of qi and blood. Western biomedical research looks at acupuncture effects on the nervous, immune and endocrine systems. It has been shown that the stimulation with acupuncture needles produces an analgesic effect through the release of endorphins , dopamine, endogenous cannabinoids (some of the body’s natural pain-killers) and anti-inflammatory substances as well as the inhibition of pro-inflammatory factors.
And does it last? The beneficial effects of acupuncture do, in fact. persist beyond the course of treatment. In a meta-analysis of around 18,000 patients with chronic pain, 90% of the pain-relieving effects were maintained at 1 year out.
As far as cost-effectiveness, acupuncture scores again. In one study in Canada, low back pain patients divided into 2 groups (201 patients receiving acupuncture and 804 patients not receiving acupuncture) were evaluated for the number of medical doctor visits required for treatment of their low back pain. The acupuncture patients saw their doctors 49% less after having acupuncture compared with the year prior to having acupuncture. Non-acupuncture patients had a decrease of only 2%.
The WHO officially classifies acupuncture as a cost-effective treatment strategy in patients with chronic low back pain, according to their cost-effectiveness threshold values.
Back pain, as many of us have experienced, can be an expensive threat to our quality of life. Depending on the cause and severity of the back pain, acupuncture can be a safe and cost-effective alternative or complementary approach to treatment, providing much needed relief!
If you are one of the many people suffering with back pain, don’t hesitate to get in for some pain-relieving acupuncture sessions. The sooner you get in, the sooner you’ll experience the benefits!
TCM MENOPAUSE: The Second Spring
In horticulture, “second spring” is a term used for that time in early autumn, after the hot and dry end of summer, when a little moisture returns, temps cool and there is a second blooming. Autumn is harvest time, but it’s also a time to rework the garden beds for some fall crops, a second helping at nature’s table.
In a woman’s life, if spring represents our birth and early years, summer our fertile years, then autumn is a transitional time of pre-menopause/menopause, while winter is the winding down years and death. Menopause as the autumn, and therefore ‘second spring’ of our lives comes in our developmental life cycles around the ages of 49-55. This is based on the Chinese medical understanding of women’s development unfolding in 7 year cycles (vs. men’s 8 year cycles). This transitional time leading to menopause ususally begins around the 7th of these 7-yr cycles, but can come earlier or later.
In TCM, Autumn is a time of letting go, the leaves fall and nature reorganizes it’s energetic investments. In a woman’s body during this autumnal life change, there are energy shifts from the reproductive organs, where the body had for many years focused on fertility functions, to the heart where the ‘shen’ or conscious spirit resides.
“Women’s heavenly dew wanes, qi that dwelt in the baby’s palace, moves up to the heart, and her wisdom is deepened.”- Nei Jing (2600 BC)
It is thought that your emotional center (the heart) gets its qi back and a woman’s personal and spiritual life can take center stage. This creates fertile ground for the ‘second spring’ of personal insights and new ideas. The fruit of life’s experience is ripe enough to enjoy as the earned wisdom and understanding that comes with age.
And while aging is feared, even at times demonized, in modern western cultures, it is understood as a natural life process and an accomplishment worthy of respect in most asian cultures. The elderly are revered for their knowledge and maturity. This difference in perception deeply affects the experience of menopausal women. The negative stigma placed on aging in the U.S., especially for women, creates an extra mental and emotional burden.
Many women, especially in Asian cultures, do not experience the symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flashes, mood swings and fatigue. Some women even experience more energy at menopause. This is because menopause is actually a homeostatic mechanism that slows down the aging process in women. It is designed to conserve energy and blood, as the body can stop expending it on the menstrual cycle and reproduction. It is in this sense that we can think of it as a healthy transition, one just in time to slow down, then stop our reproductive function to conserve our essence and energy to allow us to get the most out of the final season of our lives.
So, why do some women suffer through while others welcome this transition? It’s a matter of balance, as always, in Chinese Medicine. There needs to be an adjustment period where the body can re-stabilize while certain energetic (and hormonal) changes occur. Some people are more flexible and better equipped to handle the fluctuations. They can therefore easily re-center their own yin-yang balance in the body. Many factors affect this ability such as constitution (genetics), lifestyle, diet, environmental exposures, and even cultural influences. Acupuncture and herbs can greatly assist this process too, as they can help to guide the body’s energy back into a state of balance.
It is time to reframe our understanding of menopause as a time to celebrate the gifts that come with the closure of women’s reproductive years. Women can honor this time with rest, reflection, and a re-assessment of direction, relationships, career etc. and be rewarded with a second spring, a time of renewed energy and purpose.
Regular acupuncture can help with all kinds of life transitions, including menopause, and help you cash in on the benefits of those important shifts! Get in ASAP to set up an appropriate treatment plan!
We’ve probably all heard motherly advice at some point reminding us to bundle up in cold weather so we don’t “catch a cold”, or hear grandpa accurately predict a storm when his hip starts aching. Or how about getting a case of the winter weather blues? Even in the western world we recognize a relationship with nature in terms of environmental conditions. Changes in temperature, sunlight, barometric pressure, and humidity all play a role in this relationship.
When it comes to the weather and our health, many in the west automatically think of how season changes and extreme weather can aggravate symptoms of asthma and allergies, but weather-related health concerns go far beyond seasonal allergies and asthma. Changes in barometric pressure can affect joints (like Grandpa’s hip), and cause headaches.
Headaches can also be caused by heat and dehydration, so summer adventurers beware (bring lots of water!). High humidity can intensify heat too as it limits our ability to cool down through sweating, potentially leading to hyperthermia and heat stroke.
Cold weather can tighten muscles causing body pain. It also constricts blood vessels leading to an increase in blood pressure and increased risks of heart attack and stroke. While blood pressure tends to be higher in the winter, any temperature extreme, hot or cold, can affect heart function.
Sunlight is another aspect of weather that has a lot of influence over our health. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is often associated with the colder, darker fall and winter months. The reduced sunlight alters our melatonin and serotonin levels, potentially leaving us with disruptions in sleep and mood.
Ancient Chinese Medical texts describe a similar relationship between humans and their environment, though the wording and understanding of the nature of the environmental conditions differs slightly.
In TCM there are 5 main “climates” or environmental influences related to our health.
These are: COLD, HEAT, WIND, DAMP, DRYNESS
(summerheat, associated with late summer, is actually considered a 6th climate)
These potential causes of illness described in Chinese Medicine sound like weather patterns themselves and are considered external influences in origin but can penetrate to have effects on the body and create what we can think of as internal weather. We can also be more prone to their influence based on our constitution and lifestyle, (and can even manifest these ‘climates’ internally without external exposure).
Any extremes with these various conditions can allow pathogens to enter, if our self-protective energy and efforts are weak, and leave us vulnerable to infections, such as with colds/flus.
They can also go deeper in the body to directly affect the organs, with symptoms presenting throughout the body in the respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, nervous, musculo-skeletal systems and skin.
Wind is understood as the biggest trouble-maker as it often combines with other influences to wreak havoc in the body. It can affect the joints, bring on skin rashes, or cause a spell of dizziness, among other issues. Cold can kill the digestive fire; combine that with a damp invasion and you can experience bloating and/or nausea. Heat and dryness, on the other hand, can injure the blood and yin fluids of the body causing symptoms such as fever, restlessness, scanty painful urination, brittle hair and excessive thirst.
Chinese medicine takes a more preventative approach to these issues by addressing imbalances before they express as more severe symptoms. There is also a focus on the integrity of the defensive energy of the body as well as the body's ability to handle transitions with stability. Knowing our bodies will be continuously exposed to the challenge of seasonal weather changes and potential extremes of climate conditions, we can prepare accordingly.
Don’t wait for an internal weather emergency to call for an appointment, get in asap to strengthen your resilience to external weather conditions, balance out your internal climates and assist you in transitioning season to season with ease and well-being!
Resource to expand on climates: https://tcmwiki.com/wiki/six-climatic-factors
Back pain is often what leads people to their first Acupuncture experience. It’s one of the most frequent complaints heard by medical professionals in general. 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point during their lives, and worldwide, back pain is the single leading cause of disability.
Standard modern day approaches to back pain include physical therapy, pain medication and even surgery when severe, depending on the diagnosis. Acupuncture (just one of the many tools of Chinese Medicine) is a very cost-effective pain-relief option with a low risk of negative side effects. For mild cases, Chinese Medicine offers some self-care tips to try at home.
Rest & Exercise
The proper balance of yin and yang is the central tenet of Chinese Medicine, and when it comes to back pain, either extreme can be a cause. We can develop painful stagnant energy in our bodies from a sedentary lifestyle (extreme yin). On the flip side, we can deplete our yin with too much activity (extreme yang) leaving us susceptible to injury, withered muscles, and brittle bones. Ask yourself where the balance is needed. Sometimes for mild back pain, all that’s needed is a nap or a walk.
Hot & cold
Another way to address the yin/yang balance needed for a strong, pain-free back is with applications of hot and cold. First we need to figure out if the problem is too yang (hot) or too yin (cold). Usually acute issues involve more hot inflammation (yang), in which case a cold pack (frozen peas, anyone?) can be soothing. Whereas with chronic conditions, heat is often more appropriate to open stagnant channels and encourage qi and blood flow for healing.
Certain points on the body help to open the channels of the low back to relieve pain and stagnation. LI 4 (Joining Valley) is located in the fleshy depression just beyond the meeting point of the thumb and first finger bones and strongly stimulates qi and blood flow throughout the body. UB40 (Supporting Middle) is at the midpoint of the crease behind the knee and opens up the main channel that runs along the back. These are great points to massage gently for both chronic and acute back pain.
Tiger balm is a popular chinese salve for topical pain relief, but another bathroom cabinet essential is Zheng Gu Shui (Evil Bone Water), an herbal liniment that can be applied directly to the skin of the low back to penetrate with blood moving, pain relieving qualities.
There are great (free!) instructional videos available online that demonstrate specific qi gong exercises that support the low back, such as ‘Knocking on the Door of Life’ and ‘Spinal Chord Breathing’. For beginners, just a basic qi gong stance with some breathing can start to move the stuck qi. Wu Ji posture is thought to help bring the body into proper alignment. With feet shoulder-width apart and relaxed knees, roll your pelvis in, drop the shoulders but spread them open, tuck the chin and imagine the top of the head being pulled upward. Breathe slow, smooth and deep, and empty your mind. Feel your connection to the earth through the soles of your feet where your kidney channel begins at the indent just under the balls of the feet. It can also help to get barefoot in the grass on a sunny day!. Just this practice alone (if done regularly) can also completely change your response to stress, a major factor in pain perception.
These tips can go a long way in alleviating mild back pain, but be sure to book some acupuncture sessions to address root causes and give your body even stronger tools for rebalancing and pain relief.
Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.