If you run regularly, chances are at some point you’ve experienced lower back pain. For some it appears after long runs and will go away on its own, for others it’s always there.
The cures range from stretching to acupuncture and, if you’re a believer of TMS (Tension Myositis syndrome), psychotherapy.
After hearing about a few people who’ve used acupuncture to relieve chronic pain, I visited Dr Debbie Smith, a Homeopath and Doctor of Chinese medicine at her practice in Bryanston to chat about back pain and see if acupuncture could be a viable treatment.
According to Dr Debbie, lower back pain can come for many different reasons, and the source is often not the back. “Even though you feel the pain at your back, that’s not always where the problem comes from. It’s often a tight muscle pulling the muscles in the wrong position.”
If you’re a runner it often comes from your psoas muscle. The psoas muscle is a major muscle that connects your spine – the thoracic area to the middle of your back.
When you run, that muscle gets incredibly tight which can cause lower back pain. In addition, tight hip flexors can also cause lower back pain.
Dr Debbie explained the idea in Chinese medicine that energy and pain has to do with your Kidney Meridian. There’s a belief that we’re born with a certain amount of energy – called kidney. As we get older, this energy gets reduced which causes pain and is why a lot of elderly people start experiencing aches and pains.
It’s not only age that reduces this energy, it can be reduced by working long hours, too much sex, too much alcohol and not enough water; and constantly living in a state of flight, fright and fight.
Another modern day issue causing more and more people to suffer from lower back pain as well as shoulder and neck pain, is sitting. Spending most of your day sitting creates a lot of weakness in the core. A weak core affects your spine which causes back pain. Pilates and (Iyengar) Yoga – which focus on core and alignment, are great exercises to do to strengthen core muscles.
Emotional issues can also affect your kidneys. This ties into Dr Sano’s belief that psychogenic musculoskeletal and nerve symptoms, most notably back pain is a mind body syndrome. He calls it TMS (Tension Myositis syndrome) – it’s where you have pain and there’s no physical abnormality. It’s a mental issue and needs to be resolved by dealing with emotions or even through psychotherapy.
Dr Debbie cautions against the thinking that one cure is going to fit all. For some people, stretching can help, for others it can do more harm than good. She noted that while we should be stretching, especially after sitting for long periods, you need to make sure that the stretches you’re doing are right for you. For this she recommends visiting a biokineticist.
Acupuncture takes the approach of looking at pain and asking why you have it – and then going to the source and treating that. It’s a more holistic approach than dry needling which is used on tight muscles. With dry needling, (similar needles to those used during acupuncture) are pushed into tight muscles to try and relax the muscles. The needle goes in and out to increase the blood flow to the area. This is why dry needling can be painful, whilst acupuncture is not.
According to Dr Debbie, If there’s no structural problem ie. It’s purely physical and physiological, acupuncture can treat it. Acupuncture increases blood flow and as most muscular skeletal problems are from a lack of blood flow to the area, acupuncture helps relieve it.
After our discussion, Dr Debbie did an acupuncture treatment on me, to help relieve lower back pain I’ve had for years.
She started with a lower back stretch. With me lying on my back, knees bent she pushed her hand into the fleshy part just next to my hip bone, while she was pressing into the right side, I rotated my legs to the right. This was repeated on the left side. She said this was a great stretch to do daily, but it’s important to put pressure on the area by your hip bone – you can use your hand or a small massage ball.
I then turned on my stomach and she used her set of tools (Which look like they can be used in a knife fight) to do a myofascial release along my spine, where my muscles are tightest and the pain comes from. This is similar to a sports massage but it goes much deeper (and can be more painful).
She then started the acupuncture treatment, by placing acupuncture needles along my back where I was the tightest. This helps bring more blood and nutrients to the muscles so they can relax and heal. It thus helps relieve pain. She then also placed needles on my legs – by my knees and calves. These areas are connected to lower back pain; to improve blood flow to my ligaments and tendons. This was because the area of sensitivity on my back was very small. In acupuncture often the areas further away from the pain treat it. She then placed an infrared light above the needles to further assist the healing and I lay still (napped) for 30 minutes.
If you, like me have a fear of needles, it’s not painful at all. It’s a tiny prick as the needle goes in. I felt a slight pressure where the needles were and as time went on, the area got a little itchy. Afterwards my back felt pretty good. There was no pain, but I did feel tender along where she used her tools to do the myofascial release. The pain did return very slightly 4 days later, but Dr Debbie recommends at least 4 treatments to help relieve it and then additional treatments if needed.
I like acupuncture as it believes in following where the pain comes from and not the pain. It’s not for everyone though and as someone tweeted me – “if there is no physical abnormality, back pain is due to TMS. Acupuncture will only re-enforce the pain after the temp relief….”
I thought TMS meant too much swagger – which I’ve only ever been accused of when wearing a cardigan around my shoulder. It actually means Tension Myositis syndrome which I’ve discussed above.
If you suffer from lower back pain, you can try Epsom salt baths and the Chinese Medicine plasters Dr Debbie mentioned. A biokineticist can also help to identify any tightness or misalignments and give you proper stretches.
If acupuncture is something you want to try, contact Dr Debbie for an appointment here, she’s incredibly knowledgeable and one of the few people in South Africa qualified in many different areas of Chinese medicine.
Zissy is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to make things, do things and wear things.