The Stress Connection: Lower Back Pain

A back massage.

The back is most related to the body's yang energy, and its impact is second only to the head. (Image: osteoclinic via Pixabay)

Have you noticed that you have acute flare-ups of lower back pain more often when you are stressed? Whether it is a problem at work or an argument at home, it can be said that we carry the weight of our emotions on our backs. Conversely, when we are in pain, it makes us feel stressed.

Findings by The National Institutes of Health reported that up to 80 percent of the general population will suffer an episode of lower back pain in their lifetime. Just behind upper respiratory illness, it is the most common reason Americans seek medical treatment. It is also the most frequent reason that people in the U.S. visit a licensed acupuncturist.

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Many people in this country now know that acupuncture is very effective for all types of pain, including lower back pain. But do you also know that it is extremely relaxing and great at relieving your stress? There have been many research studies that confirm acupuncture is highly effective, very comfortable, and minimally invasive health care.

My patients often experience such fast relief that it is like magic! I can’t guarantee the magic… but I always go for it!

manequin in chinese medicine shop with meridians drawn all over body.
There have been many research studies that confirm acupuncture is highly effective, very comfortable, and minimally invasive healthcare. (Image: bekaschiller via Pixabay)

Emotions and lower back pain

The emotions of stress cause a blockage in the flow of qi (vital energy), blood, and fluids in your system. In the theory and practice of acupuncture, we know that it is important to eliminate the blockages and facilitate a free flow of qi.

In my last article, I cited a wise Chinese saying translated as: “When there is pain, there is no free flow; when there is free flow, there is no pain.” Your lower back pain is an indication that your qi is blocked.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), part of the diagnostic assessment could be qi stagnation, with blood stasis causing pain. This means that the qi, or energy, is not moving freely, and since qi moves blood, neither is the blood.

Physiologically, neuroendocrine responses in the hypothalamus cause the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands. Stress leads to an overworking of the adrenals, which eventually leads to a deficiency in kidney energy.

The low back is the mansion of the kidneys, according to Chinese medicine. Anatomically, this is where the kidneys are located in the body. This partially explains why lower back pain is often symptomatic of prolonged stress.

In fact, Chinese medical practitioners know that enduring diseases of any kind eventually reach the kidneys. Reducing your stress is important for many reasons that you may not be aware of.

When treating lower back pain, acupuncturists do not have a one size fits all type of approach. Experienced acupuncturists recognize that there are different types of lower back pain. It can be an underlying excess or deficient condition, and most commonly it is a combination of both.

This is why acupuncture treatments for each patient differ, with the diagnosis being based on the results of the examination.

Important parts of the diagnostic procedure in Chinese medicine are asking questions to determine whether the pain is sharp or dull, constant or intermittent, when the pain first occurred, and whether it gets better or worse as the day goes on. The acupuncturist will also ask what other health concerns you have, check your pulse and tongue, and do some manual palpation (touching the body lightly with the fingers).

When treating lower back pain, acupuncturists do not have a one size fits all type of approach.
When treating lower back pain, acupuncturists do not have a one size fits all type of approach. (Image: Derks24 via Pixabay)

A case of magic

Recently, Sally, a woman in her mid-50s, came to my office complaining of terrible low back and knee pain, which is also related to the kidney energy in Chinese medicine. It had been a particularly stressful couple of years, and the economy forced her to work in retail sales.

Her job had her spending long hours on her feet, and she was in constant pain. Examinations, tests, pain medications, and physical therapy sessions over the last year had done nothing to relieve her pain, and had actually caused her more stress!

Though Sally started wearing a knee brace and tried to take more frequent breaks, her work was suffering, the pain was always on her mind, and she became quite depressed. She found herself waking up four or five times a night in pain and unable to fall back to sleep thinking of her predicament.

On her first visit, after a complete examination and evaluation, I gently treated her with acupuncture and tuina (Chinese medical massage). I showed her an easy stretch for her back and asked her to use a heating pad twice a day.

The next day, Sally called me first to tell me that it was a miracle! She felt so much better after just an hour and a half with me. She called me over the next few days with great progress reports. I was very happily surprised as well at her quick response to treatment.

She was able to come in for three additional treatments in the month that followed, and no longer needs the knee brace. Her lower back pain is 90 percent gone. Sally also found that she is able to think more clearly, has fewer headaches and her neck is more relaxed. She is less stressed and is relieved that she is feeling so much better physically and emotionally.

She was able to come in for three additional treatments in the month that followed, and no longer needs the knee brace.
She was able to come in for three additional treatments in the month that followed, and no longer needs the knee brace. (Image: Wonderlane via Flickr)

I love it when we get the magic!

Many people feel extra stress during the holidays, and the colder weather causes tighter muscles and more qi stagnation. It will go a long way to take time to get additional sleep, eat well, exercise, and do some things to relieve stress and recharge your system. Quiet time for yourself — meditation, yoga, or qigong — and acupuncture care can all help you have a happier season with less lower back pain and stress.

Cindy E. Levitz, M.S., L.Ac., is a Diplomate in Oriental Medicine, NCCAOM. She has been in private practice since 1996. Specialties: Stress/Anxiety & Pain Reduction, Women’s Health Issues. Complimentary consultation at: AcupunctureAndHealth.com

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