Note: This is Part II of a 2-part blog post. You can read part I here.
Back pain is easily the most common pain symptom that I treat. A person may get a stiff neck from “sleeping wrong”, or mid-back pain from poor ergodynamics at the office, or low back pain from lifting a weight.
In Part II of my case study on back pain, I’ll talk about a patient with a degenerative back problem and how acupuncture was able to help him.
Doug was an athletic 40-year old with “an 80-year old back”. He had been diagnosed in 1997 with a genetic condition called Disc Degenerative Disease. As the name explains, his discs and cartilage of his spine were slowly and steadily deteriorating. When he came to see me, his L5/S1 was bone-on-bone, and the spinous processes of L3-L5 were mostly degenerated. This caused him extreme and constant pain, from the rubbing of bones, and the pinching of nerves. Also, the muscles in his lower back were in constant knots, as they attempted to hold his spine in place. He was taking both muscle relaxants and pain medications to help him cope with the pain, and he had already scheduled surgery for a multi level disc replacement and disc fusion.
For a condition this extreme, I had two roles as acupuncturist:
- To help as best I could with his pain management. Degenerative illnesses are as locked-in as any ailment could be. Acupuncture may help to slow the progress of a particular genetic disease, and it can certainly help with day-to-day symptoms. However, acupuncture cannot rewrite a person’s DNA or reverse it when it has started. Thus giving temporary relief to this patient’s pain was the best that any acupuncturist could offer on a physical level. And
- To be supportive of his spirit and his will. Pain can zap your energy. It can drain your zest for life and can even take away your will to live. Doug still had a lot of hope and faith that he would one day live life without pain. But that pain was a weight on his very soul, eroding his hope. My job was to help him maintain his faith that despite, in spite, and even because of the pain, he was ok.
Similar to the Part I Case Study, I did a combination of shiatsu and acupuncture on Doug. I would give him full-body massages, not just on his lower back, because his entire body was affected by the spine degeneration. The stress caused by the pain caused tension in his neck, head, stomach, arms and legs. Massaging only his back would be akin to only putting a band-aid on a cut when the infection had spread to the rest of the body. By helping his entire body to relax, his back was better able to release the tension and pain.
For the acupuncture, I did several techniques and points depending on the type of pain he was in that day. A set of points that were very effective are called The Huatuojiaji Points. These points run the length of the spine from T1-L5 and are located just to the left and right of the spine’s center line. These points are great to relieve local muscle tension, stiffness, and pain (they can also be used to treat herpes zoster).
Other points used to treat his back were BL54 on the back of his knees, KI5 on his ankle, and even points in his ears.
With regards to supporting his spirit, it should be remembered that in Chinese Medicine, there is no separation from the Body, Mind and Spirit. Every point simultaneously treats on the mental, and spiritual levels, as well as the physical. So even as I treated the Huatuojiaji Points at the location of the physical pain, I was also treating his spirit. The difference between points is that some (like the Huatuojiaji points) have a greater physical benefit, while others have greater spiritual benefit.
To bolster his strength of will, I did several points on his chest collectively called Spirit Points. They have names like Spirit Burial Ground and Spirit Storehouse, to help Doug tap into his indomitable spirit and transcend any obstacle. There are also points called Walking on the Veranda and Amidst Elegance that were meant to remind him of the beauty of life regardless of the pain he felt. These points helped to keep him mentally and spiritually relaxed, as he navigated his life in and around his physical pain.
On a physical level, acupuncture didn’t “fix” Doug. He had the major surgery last year, and is still recovering from it. Pain, right now, is still as regular as the sun and moon.
What acupuncture did give him was “a relief from the constant ache and pain that just built up to a point where I could get emotionally and physically spent.” It helped to maintain his hope that he will one day be pain-free, a belief that he keeps. Those couple hours of pain reduction enabled him to transcend his pain and to keep on keeping on.
For people in chronic pain, that kind of help means EVERYTHING.