Public health statistics show that 8 out of 10 people experience significant low back pain at some time in their lives; whether it is due to an injury, illness, or an unknown cause. The pain is a warning signal, an alarm that goes off when your body is trying to tell you that something is wrong and out of balance.
Often, people suffering from low back pain cover it up, either by ignoring the pain or by taking pharmaceuticals. However, treated this way, the root of the pain will never completely go away. It will keep lurking inside until the next stressor hits the person and then she/he will experience the same kind of pain again. Unless the root cause of the low back pain is treated, the body will keep sounding the alarm to remind you that something is wrong. Eventually, the low back pain may get worse or become chronic and debilitating.
I have seen numerous young people in their 20s and 30s who used to be very active playing all kinds of sports but then all of a sudden succumb to chronic low back pain after experiencing some major life stressors because they brush it off thinking that they are young and healthy and will soon get better after taking some pain killer medicines temporarily.
However, in many cases the low back pain when treated poorly will persist and even get worse, compromising their ability to stay active and be productive in the work force. Some people as a result will lose muscle from staying sedentary and become overweight with fat tissue. This will lead to further vicious cycles of postural imbalance causing more burden on the low back, further inactivity, obesity and then years down the road in their 40s and 50s, all the chronic illnesses that come with obesity such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, knee osteoarthritis, depression, heart attacks, strokes, etc.
Overall, low back pain itself is not life-threatening, but when it’s not treated properly and persists for months and years, it can lead to a morbid poor quality of life down the road.
What can you do about this?
The truth is, no one should have to live with low back pain.
But what treatment is right for you?
One approach is to get plenty of bed rest in hopes that the pain will just disappear. This may help for a while, but could possibly delay recovery and make the problem worse.
When people become sedentary on bed for a longer period over 2 days, the body’s blood circulation gets stagnant and the low back tissue does not get enough of fresh blood supply to nourish the cells with new oxygen and nutrients and the healing gets delayed. People tend to feel more depressed when they are on bed rest for a long time, which depresses their immune system and increases their stress hormone levels, which makes it harder for the body to relax and focus its energy on healing.
Most common practice in Western conventional medicine is the primary care doctor prescribing the patient to take Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen or opioids and referring them to physical therapy for the first 4-6weeks. Most of the time, under the current broken health care system, the primary care doctors have to see 20-30 patients a day, so they can only spend 10-15min per patient, which makes it difficult to address all the underlying dietary, psychosocial factors that contribute to the low back pain symptoms. They end up prescribing these analgesics, narcotics or muscle relaxants because it’s a quick and easy way to mask the problem and appease the patient and move onto the next patient.
If the patient does not get better after more than 6weeks and returns to clinic then they tend to order an X-ray and MRI of the low back to look for structural abnormalities. However, according to a recent study, 40-50% of asymptomatic pain-free patients have been shown to have incidental findings of herniated disc, ruptured disc or spinal stenosis on MRI while 40-50% of patients complaining of horrible low back pain had totally normal findings on X-ray or MRI studies. This shows that structural abnormality does not necessarily correlate with the low back pain symptoms.
These patients are referred to a physiatrist, pain management specialist or an orthopedic specialist. These specialists may perform procedures such as epidural steroid injection or nerve block ablation treatment. However, the clinical outcomes of these procedures are often not significant enough to justify the cost and risks of side effects. In addition, these procedures do not address the underlying cause of the pain and will only temporarily mask it.
The epidural steroid injections may be able to reduce the inflammation in the joint temporarily but the effect does not last long in most cases and the steroid can cause the tendons to weaken and rupture so it is not desirable to get it done more frequently than every 3 months. The nerve block ablation treatment will burn off the nerves involved in the pain area so the patient will feel numb in that region for a while and then many times the pain will recur because the procedure will cause the tissue to form scars which can compress on adjacent nerves and irritate them.
As a last resort, surgery may be recommended by many doctors if the pain persists even though the patients has been taking medications, undergone steroid injections and has been through physical therapy for several months. At times, this approach may make sense if people think their low back pain comes from a structural abnormality that can be easily fixed by a scalpel. However, this could be both expensive and risky and there is no guarantee that it will be effective in eliminating the pain. This is approaching low back pain in the wrong way since low back pain is not just a structural abnormality problem.
Unfortunately, not knowing that there are many more factors causing their low back pain which can be better healed by more holistic and less expensive modalities of treatment, many patients undergo expensive surgeries, spend many months recovering from the surgery in the hospital and lose time for productive activities but still suffer from chronic back pain for years afterwards and undergo multiple revision surgeries but then still continue to suffer from the same pain.
This is because the human body is not a machine that is supposed to be manipulated by cutting off parts and screwing in metals to change the structure forcefully. Anything that is forcefully done unnaturally will always have unwanted side effects that the doctors could not predict before the surgery. The human body is an organic being that has an innate ability to heal itself given it is nudged with subtle removals of the stressors using more holistic and non-invasive methods. Even the structural abnormalities can be self-corrected by the body’s own healing capacity if the stressors are removed gently and the body is brought back to balance to do the healing work itself.
What most doctors don’t emphasize is that low back pain is a more comprehensive issue derived from many different stressors in life. Then what are these stressors that cause low back pain?
- Chemical stress from a poor diet with substances and toxins that cause much inflammation in the body
- Circulatory stress from blockage of Qi flow and blood flow to the low back region
- Internal organic stress from impaired liver and kidney function leading to poor detoxification of blood and blood stasis problems
- Physical stress from continuous poor posture, being overweight exacerbated by trauma
- Emotional stress from anxiety, depression, financial problems, negative thinking
- Hormonal stress from overactive cortisol from chronic stress impeding growth hormone that can repair the injured low back muscle tissues
Therefore, treating low back pain involves a much more comprehensive holistic approach than what current mainstream Western medicine offers to patients. In order to fully recover from low back pain and become fully healthy, functional and active, all of these stressors need to be addressed in the treatment plan.
This treatment approach will be discussed in detail in the next article: The Holistic Approach to Treating Low Back Pain.
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