How Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture Treat Neck, Back, and Sciatic Pain

Chinese medicine states that the body is interconnected; no one part can be separated from another. The diagnosis and treatment is based upon identifying specific imbalances in the muscles and the body as a whole. Correcting the imbalance does not just treat the symptoms or mask the condition, but rather corrects the root of the problem by encouraging self-healing of the body.

Pain, in Chinese medicine, is due to an obstruction in the flow of energy (Qi), blood, lymph or other fluids. With neck, back, or sciatic pain, as with other forms of pain, Chinese medical practitioners use acupuncture, herbal formulas, and physical therapy to increase the circulation of Qi, blood and fluids, especially in the area of discomfort. When circulation in the tissue increases, Qi, blood and fluids are allowed to flow more freely, the muscles in the area become more relaxed, and pain reduction follows in most cases. Occasionally the pain in the effected area may initially intensify, followed by the muscle relaxation, tissue repair, and then the diminishing of the pain.

Chinese Medicine’s vocabulary for pain is very different from that of Western medicine’s, and identifies the patterns of back pain as:

  • Deficiency type pain– Pain that results from deficiency is usually dull, chronic, and improves with rest. It is more common in middle-aged and elderly people.
  • Energy (Qi) and Blood stagnation pain– Pain from stagnation is more severe and stabbing in nature. There is stiffness and tightness in the muscles and it worsens with rest. Often this type is seen in occurrences of acute sprains and strains. It can reoccur chronically, thereby indicating an underlying deficiency.
  • Cold Damp Obstruction pain– Pain from cold damp obstruction is worse in the morning, and exacerbated by cold and damp weather. It improves with heat and may be accompanied by numbness, swelling, and a sense of heaviness.

Overall, Chinese medical treatment can relax and stretch the tendons and fascia to help release the spastic muscles and strengthen them, thus allowing the neck, back, or sciatic nerve to naturally heal.

Acupuncture increases circulation to the muscles, allowing them to relax and heal. When your practitioner treats your neck, back, or sciatic pain with acupuncture, both local (at the site of pain) and distal (away from the area of pain) needles can be used to help resolve the problem. Distal points are very important, especially in acute pain. Often, needles can be placed in areas other than the back and you can get excellent and quick relief. There are many local points on the back and often a practitioner will feel to identify the most sensitive spots and needle those. Generally, it is advisable to have frequent treatment initially and taper off as the pain diminishes.

Chinese herbs can also be helpful in moving blood and reducing inflammation as well as strengthening a deficient condition. Many herbs use the same biochemical pathways as other pain relievers. In the short term, they are typically not as invasive but they have myriad positive effects.

In Chinese herbal therapy, incidences of neck, back, or sciatic pain are hardly considered to be isolated events. Everything is a factor. The goal of Chinese herb therapy is to regain balance in all ways physical, chemical, and energetic.

Nutritional Guidance and Lifestyle Recommendations: According to Chinese medicine, the spleen is the organ in charge of digestion. It is the spleen energy (Qi) that transforms and transports the food and drink ingested. If, through overeating sweets and fatty foods, raw, chilled foods, and drinking excessive chilled beverages with meals, the spleen is damaged, it may fail to transform and transport liquids and these may accumulate to become internally generated dampness. Because dampness is yin, it tends to percolate downward in the body to lodge in the lower half of the body, causing damage to the liver and kidneys and thus creating lower back pain. Proper diet will be discussed with your Chinese medical practitioner, and an individualized plan will be prescribed to best address your pain and condition.

Proper exercise can also greatly aid in the treatment and prevention of neck, back, or sciatic pain. In Chinese Qi gong training, it is said that the shen leads the qi. That means that if you’re doing an exercise in which you are focusing your mind (shen) on your lower back, then the energy (qi) goes there, and healing takes place. This exercise can be very similar to Acupuncture’s function. When you have a needle stuck into your back, you think about it. You’re acutely aware of it. It forces the mind to become conscious of that area, and so the qi is led to that area. Qi gong exercises can have this same focus and are recommended in-between acupuncture treatments.

Tui Na Massage, a form of Chinese massage, can also increase blood flow to the tense muscles and relax them. This increased circulation can reduce lactic acid in the area, helping decrease inflammation and restore mobility.