Low back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work in the United States. Whether acute or chronic, low back pain gets in the way of your ability to be as active and productive as you want to be. Here are some self-care strategies from a Chinese medicine perspective that you can integrate into your daily routine.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, exposure to cold is considered a cause of illness and is to be avoided at all costs, especially after injury. The thought of icing an injury would likely make your acupuncturist cringe. The reason being is that cold causes contraction, which shuts down blood circulation and impairs healing. Interestingly, western medicine has caught up to this theory and the old recommendation of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) has been amended to reflect this. Recent research shows that icing can cause permanent nerve damage in some cases. Instead of ice, use heat and consider doing an epsom salt compress (blog post with instructions on how to do this coming shortly!).
Another tenet of Chinese medicine is to maintain the free flow of qi throughout your body. Qi can be translated as energy coursing through meridians, or oxygenated and nutrient dense blood flowing through your circulatory system. Where there are blockages in this flow, or stagnation, illness and pain occur. There is a Chinese medicine axiom: “If there is free flow, there is no pain. If there is pain, there is no free flow.” Our bodies are meant to move, allowing our blood to circulate and nourish our muscles, tissue, organs and brain. It may be tempting to lay low after injury, but the key is to keep moving and avoid prolonged periods of inactivity. Light activity like walking, gentle yoga, tai chi or swimming are great options. Of course, you’ll want to avoid strenuous workouts, yard work, lifting or anything that causes pain to worsen.
Change up your routine
Many people work in an office environment and sit for most of the day. If you are dealing with chronic low back pain it is crucial that you make it a point to get up and walk around and stretch at least once per hour (every 30 minutes is even better). Incorporate a sit/stand desk so you keep changing your position throughout the day. There is new research that shows prolonged sitting to be as much of a risk factor in disease and early death as smoking, yes smoking!
Take a deep breath
When we are in pain we tend to hold our breath and take shallow breaths. Much like with inactivity, this creates stagnation and tension in your muscles. Simply making an effort to take deep breaths throughout the day can help lessen your pain by engaging the diaphragm and abdominals and encouraging the muscles of the low back to relax. Consciously breathing also induces a parasympathetic nervous system response. This lowers your blood pressure and heart rate and relaxes your muscles. A simple exercise you can do anywhere is to take a deep breath while visualizing the breath traveling down to your lumbar spine and pelvis - notice how this changes your posture and releases tension.
Look to your diet
Chronic pain is often a result of the body’s inflammatory system not shutting off after an acute injury as it should. The typical American diet of processed foods, gluten, dairy, sugar, and alcohol is highly inflammatory. If you are battling chronic back pain, experiment with an anti-inflammatory diet. In my clinical experience I have seen patients recover much more rapidly after eliminating gluten, diary and sugar from their diets. You can also add natural anti-inflammatories to you diet through food or supplements. Turmeric is perhaps the most famous of the anti-inflammatory medicinal herbs and can be added to food or taken in supplement form. It contains curcumin, which has been shown to outperform NSAIDS for pain relief in some studies.
Mind your mindset
Chinese medicine views the body, mind and spirit as interconnected and all must be addressed to get to the root of disease. Your emotional state and response to stress can have a huge impact on how you experience and process pain. Adding 10 minutes of daily meditation can help you change emotional patterns that might be making the pain worse.
Acupuncture works best the earlier after an injury you come in for treatment. Often times you can get relief from one treatment. Other times you will need to set up a treatment plan to manage the chronic pain. At Turning Pointe Acupuncture we will do a full assessment including an orthopedic exam and postural assessment. Your treatment plan may include acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, bodywork, herbal medicine, supplements and/or corrective exercises. Stay tuned to the blog for post on my favorite low back exercises coming soon!