Herniated discs are a common problem both in China and New Zealand. In China, the treatment for herniated disc is mainly done within the hospital system and will involve acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping , external herbal therapy as well as tui na. Tui Na is a Chinese medical system of massage and is particularly useful for injury rehabilitation. I have written a post about tui na if you are interested in learning more about it.
The most common cause of herniated disc is from lifting heavy objects but there are many instances when there is little history of heavy lifting. For example, cyclists peddling up a steep hill while seated can also risk getting a disc herniation. The pain that comes as a result is because the disc is squashed out and then presses on the nerve.
But what causes the disc to prolapse in the first place?
Traditional Chinese medicine views that the muscles either side of the spine, the para-spinal muscles, have a long standing history of deep muscle tension and tightness which eventually can lead to so much tension and pressure on the spine which then causes the disc to squeeze out.
Is it possible to prevent herniated disc?
Myself, as well as many other traditional Chinese medicine doctors believe that it is so important to keep the lower back relaxed and supple. Regular massage on the back, moxibustion on the lower back to tonify the kidney energy and local acupuncture needling on the lower back can help to promote circulation of qi in the area. It is also important to do regular daily stretching of the whole body as well as the lower back to help keep the back in good health. Whether this would prevent a herniated disc is almost to impossible to say. To do this would involve a very long prolonged research study to try correlate a connection.
Has modern science changed the way traditional acupuncture is used to treat herniated disc?
By default, the gained knowledge from modern science has changed the way we can treat herniated disc syndrome. We now know that through MRI scans and CT scans, at which level the disc is herniated. This then allows us to treat directly at the site of herniation either with acupuncture points directly on the spine or the points known as Hua Tuo Jia Jia points next to the depressions below the spinous processes. In particular, an acupuncture technique known as warm needle method is used. This is where a small amount of the herb, mugwort, is placed at the end of the needle on the handle and lit. This provides a steady, slow and warming action to generate circulation in the area to stimulate recovery. Traditional Chinese medicine thought is that the warming action of moxibustion expands and opens the area to allow the disc to return to its normal position.
Herniated disc can cause pain and numbness in the extremities, can this be treated?
From a modern medicine perspective, this numbness is due to the distribution of the nerves coming from the spine which travel to areas called the dermatomes. The area of these dermatome distributions also correlate with certain meridian circulation pathways, so acupuncture points may be selected on these meridians if numbness is present there. Sometimes it surprises patients when I tell them that I am treating the gall bladder meridian on the leg, yet the problem actually stems from the lower lumbar vertebra.
What about traditional acupuncture techniques for herniated disc syndrome?
There are a number of traditional theories that come in play when treating herniated disc. One is that the spleen controls the muscles that influence the spine so acupuncture points to benefit and tonify the spleen may be used, so for example, points on the wrist and leg may be used. Another factor to consider is that the kidneys control the bones and hence acupuncture points to improve the strength of the kidneys are used.
How does the research differ between China and the West in regards to herniated disc acupuncture research?
In the West, researchers set out to demonstrate if acupuncture actually works in herniated disc syndrome and compare results to a group of patients who didn’t have acupuncture or had pretend acupuncture. In China, they already have accepted that acupuncture helps and works for herniated disc syndrome, so they do research to try find better ways to improve acupuncture treatment outcomes. This is an example of research done in China for herniated disc syndrome.
Is acupuncture covered by ACC for treatment of herniated disc syndrome?
In New Zealand, The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) covers acupuncture for treatment of herniated disc. There are hundreds of registered acupuncturists who are members of Acupuncture NZ. I run regular continuing education workshops for acupuncture practitioners including those interested in upskilling their techniques in the treatment of herniated discs, so please feel free to contact me for details.