The Stress Connection: Low Back Pain

An acupuncturist’s perspective
December 6, 2013 Updated: December 5, 2013

Part 2

Have you noticed that you have acute flare-ups of 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 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 low 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.

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

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

Emotions and 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 low 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, neuro-endocrine responses in the hypothalamus cause the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands. Stress leads to an over working of the adrenals which eventually leads to a deficiency in the 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 low 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 low 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 differs, with the diagnosis being based on the results of 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; and 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).

A Case of Magic

Recently, Sally, a woman in her mid-50’s 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 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.

At 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 low back pain is 90 percent gone. Sally also found that she is able to think more clearly, has less headaches and her neck is more relaxed. She is less stressed and is relieved that she is feeling so much better physically and emotionally.

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 qi gong and acupuncture care can all help you have a happier season with less 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: