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How Do the Chinese Treat Back Pain?

by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, September 27, 2017

How Do the Chinese Treat Back Pain? By Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming

Qigong is the study of qi. This means that qigong actually covers a very wide field of research and includes the study of the three general types of qi (heaven qi, earth qi, and human qi) and their interrelationships. However, because the Chinese have traditionally paid more attention to the study of human qi, which is concerned with health and longevity, the term "qigong" has often been misunderstood and misused to mean only the study of human qi. Because so much attention has been given to human qi over thousands of years, human qigong has reached a very high level. Today it includes many fields such as acupuncture, herbal study, massage, cavity press, qigong exercises, martial arts, and even spiritual enlightenment. I would like to summarize some of the methods commonly used in China to prevent back pain and to cure it.

Chinese Diagnosis and Treatment

Since the Western public tends to be unfamiliar with Chinese diagnosis, I will first summarize the general diagnostic techniques in Chinese medicine. And then I will discuss general treatments for back pain in Chinese medicine.

General Chinese Medical Diagnosis

When a person is sick, his qi circulation is irregular or abnormal—it has too much yin or too much yang. Because all qi channels are connected to the surface of the body, stagnant or abnormal qi flow will cause signs to show on the skin. Also, the sounds a sick person makes when speaking, coughing, or breathing are different from those of a healthy person. Chinese doctors therefore examine a patient's skin, particularly the forehead, eyes, ears, and tongue. They also pay close attention to the person's sounds. In addition, they ask the patient a number of questions about his daily habits, feeling, and activities to understand the background of the illness. Finally, the doctor feels the pulses and probes special spots on the body to further check the condition of specific channels. Therefore, Chinese diagnosis is divided into four principal categories: 1. looking (wang zhen); 2. listening and smelling (wen zhen); 3. asking (wen zhen); and 4. palpation (qie zhen).

Obviously, Chinese medicine takes a somewhat different approach to diagnosis than Western medicine. Chinese doctors treat the body as a whole, analyzing the cause of the illness from the patient's appearance and behavior. Often what the Chinese physician considers important clues or causes are viewed by the Western doctor as symptomatic or irrelevant, and vice versa.

Next, we will briefly discuss the above four Chinese diagnostic techniques.

Looking (Wang Zhen)

1. Looking at the spirit and inspecting the color. General appearance: Examine the facial expression, muscle tone, posture, and general spirit.

Diagnosis from the Face's Color

2. Skin color: Examine the skin color of the injured area, if the problem is externally visible, like a bruise or pulled muscle. Examine the skin color of the face. Since some channels are connected to the face, its color can tell the Chinese doctor what organs are disordered or out of balance.

Diagnosis from the Tongue's Condition

3. Tongue: The tongue is closely connected through channels with the heart, kidney, stomach, liver, gall bladder, lungs, and spleen. In making his diagnosis, the Chinese doctor will check the shape, fur, color, and the body of the tongue to determine the condition of the organs.

Diagnosis from the Eye's Black (or Blue) Spots and Lines

4. Eyes: From the appearance of the eyes a doctor can tell the liver condition. For example, when the eyes are red, it means the liver has too much yang. Also, black spots on the whites of the eyes can tell of problems with the qi circulation, degeneration of organs, or stagnancy due to an old injury.

5. Hair: The condition of the hair can indicate the health of the kidneys and the blood. For example, thin, dry hair indicates deficient kidney qi or weak blood.

6. Lip and gums: The color of the lips and their relative dryness indicates if the qi is deficient or exhausted. Red, swollen, or bleeding gums can be caused by stomach fire. Pale, swollen gums and loose teeth might be a symptom of deficient kidneys.

Listening and Smelling (Wen Zhen)

1. Listening to patient's breathing, mode of speech and cough. For example, a dry, hacking cough is caused by dry heat in the lungs.

2. Smelling the odor of a patient's breath and excrement. For example, in the case of diseases caused by excessive heat, the various secretions and excretions of the body have a heavy, foul odor, while in diseases caused by excessive cold, they smell more like rotten fish.

Asking (Wen Zhen)

This is one of the most important sources of a successful diagnosis. The questions usually cover the patient's past medical history, present condition, habits and lifestyle. Traditionally, there are ten main subjects a Chinese doctor will focus on in this interview. They are as follows:

1. Chills and fever 2. Head and body 3. Perspiration 4. Diet and appetite 5. Urine and stool 6. Chest and abdomen 7. Eyes and ears 8. Sleep 9. Medical history 10. Bearing and living habits

Palpation (Qie Zhen)

There are three major forms of palpation (touching or feeling) in Chinese medicine: 1. The palpation of areas that feel painful, hot, or swollen to determine the nature of the problem. For example, swelling and heat indicate that there is too much yang in the area. 2. The palpation of specific acupuncture points on the front and back of the trunk. For example, if an area feels collapsed or the point is sore to the touch, there could be disease in the organ with which the point is associated.

The Palpitation of the Pulse

3. The palpation of the pulse. Traditionally, the radial pulse on the wrist is the principal site for pulse diagnosis. Although the pulse is specially related to the lungs and controlled by the heart, it signals the condition of all organs. The doctor checks the following: the depth (floating or submerged), the pace (slow or fast), the length (long or short), the strength (weak or strong), and the quality (slippery, rough, wiry, tight, huge, fine, or irregular). Usually it takes several years and hundreds of cases to become expert in the palpation of the pulse.

Recently, inspection of skin eruptions on the ears has been used in Chinese diagnosis. A number of sites have been found on the ear which become spontaneously tender or otherwise react to disease or injury somewhere in the body. Stimulation of these ear points in turn exerts certain therapeutic effects on those parts of the body with which they are associated. Moreover, many Western diagnostic methods, such as using x-rays, have also been adopted to coordinate with Chinese diagnosis.

This section serves only as a brief introduction to Chinese medical diagnosis. Interested readers should refer to books about Chinese medicine for more information.

Next, I will list the possible diagnostic techniques for back pain. However, before we begin, first let us see how the Chinese define back pain or pain associated with back. The most common term for back pain is called yaotong (lumbago)—waist pain. From this, you can see most back pain is in the waist area (i.e., lumbar vertebrae). It is also called yaokaotong (lumbosacral pain)—pain in the lumbar vertebrae. However, when the pain has reached to the upper section of the spine, it is called yaojitong—pain along the spinal column. If the pain in the waist area is only sore without severe pain, it is called yaosuan—soreness of waist. And if the entire back is aching it is called yaobeitengtong—pain in the back and loins, lumbago and back pain.

From this terminology you can see that according to Chinese medical definitions, back pain is not a disease, but the pain is caused by some special sickness. Therefore, the beginning treatment is to stop the pain and then follow with some herbal treatments or special qigong exercises to heal the sickness or to rebuild the strength of the physical and qi bodies. It is believed that only then will the root of the sickness be removed, and further sickness prevented.

Diagnosis for Back Pain

1. Looking and inspecting the posture of the patient to see if there is any abnormal structure in or appearance of the spine.

2. Asking the patient about, and understanding, the patient's medical history and conditions. Where is the pain? How did the back pain start? How long have the symptoms existed? When is the pain most serious?

3. Palpating the areas that feel painful, hot, swollen, etc., to determine the nature of the problem. Also, from the hands' touch on special areas or cavities on the back, an experienced Chinese physician is able to tell where the qi is stagnant on the back.

4. From different angles of arm or leg movement, or different angles of the torso's gentle twisting and bending, identifying some special injuries or muscular spasms.

The above is an excerpt from The Pain-Free Back: 54 Simple Qigong Movements for Healing and Prevention by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, is a renowned author and teacher of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. Born in Taiwan, he has trained and taught Taijiquan, Qigong and Chinese martial arts for over forty-five years. He is the author of over thirty books, and was elected by Inside Kung Fu magazine as one of the 10 people who has "made the greatest impact on martial arts in the past 100 years." Dr. Yang lives in Northern California.


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