What are Discs?
Each of us has circular pads – or discs – of connective tissue that slide in between the bones of the spine known as vertebrae. These discs have the task of cushioning these vertebrae (which are very thin) when you run jump or even sit down heavily in a chair. The discs themselves are essentially a fibrous casing inside of which is a gel-like substance.
What is a Slipped Disc?
A slipped disc is perhaps misleading in its name because the disc itself does not essentially slip from its original position. Instead the disc ruptures and the jelly like innards push out through the vertebrae. This damaged disc – or these damaged discs as sometimes more than one disc can ‘slip’ given the nature of the injury – can put pressure on the entire length of spinal cord or can simply rub against a single nerve. Thus far the disc can cause pain in and around the area of the vertebrae or can cause pain in the part of the body that corresponds to any nerve endings it touches.
Most commonly the problem will occur in the lower back but any of the discs in the upper back and neck can also slip and cause a similar problem.
Symptoms of a Slipped Disc
Many people who have problems with a slipped disc may never even know but in a great many other cases the sufferer will be subject to pain, which can come and go in short bursts or be persistent in and around the area of the disc. As we have already mentioned the pain can also be distributed to those parts of the body that are in direct relation to any nerves in the back upon which the disc is touching.
One of the most common symptoms of a slipped disc is Sciatica: this condition affects the Sciatic nerve which a large nerve in the back made up of several smaller nerves which travel down the back, through the buttocks and down into the backs of the legs. Pressure on the Sciatic nerve can lead to a persistent aching, numbness or a tingling sensation in either leg.
Other symptoms include stiffening of the muscles, muscle paralysis and even uncontrollable muscle spasms. Some people suffering from this condition often relate their experiences to their GP as being similar to the cramp one might have in their leg if they sit on it.
Slipped discs normally come about as the result of bending incorrectly or being employed in a job that requires a lot of heavy lifting. If you are employed in such a job you should have received correct lifting and handling training; if not you should seek to have this training as soon as possible. Smoking is also a common factor as is being overweight.
Treating Musculo-skeletal Pain with Traditional Chinese Medicine
Pain conditions bring many people to a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic: back pain, knee pain, tennis elbow, the list goes on. Unfortunately, most of us can expect to suffer from pain at some point in our lives. Twelve percent of global population currently suffer from pain or discomfort that prevents at least a few of their activities, and low back pain is estimated to affect 60 to 80% of the population at least once in their life. The good news is that TCM can offer effective treatments.
Assessing your pain
Your first session will begin with an assessment of your pain; how long you’ve had it, what caused it, and what makes it better or worse. Your practitioner may also perform a range of motion test to determine how your pain is affecting your joint mobility.
Treating your pain
According to TCM, “where there is blockage, there is pain”. Most pain conditions are the result of some kind of blockage in the flow of Qi or Blood, so the treatment strategy is to open up the channels.
Acupuncture is very effective at “getting things unstuck”. It has two effects: first of all, it creates short-term pain relief by stimulating the release of serotonin and natural opiates and by creating electrical impulses that inhibit pain. Secondly, it encourages long-term healing and repair of the affected tissues by reducing inflammation, increasing blood circulation, and relaxing chronically tense muscles.
Herbs can also be used to open the channels, especially if the blockage is caused by a deficiency condition. They are also useful in nourishing tendons and ligaments. Keep in mind that not all pain is treated the same way. TCM always looks at the whole person, including their diet and lifestyle. So it’s not just a sore back that’s being treated, it’s your sore back. This means that the same kind of pain condition may be treated quite differently in different people.
The length of your course of treatments will depend largely on how long you’ve had your pain condition and how serious the condition is. As a very rough guide, you can expect one weekly treatment for every month you’ve had your condition.
You can expect that your pain level will decrease, even after a single treatment. It will likely return before your second treatment, but not always to the original level. After the second treatment, you can expect a greater reduction in pain and a longer lasting effect, and so on for each subsequent treatment.
A 1994 British study documented this analgesic effect in a group of patients with tennis elbow. After one treatment, 80% of acupuncture patients reported at least a 50% decrease in pain, compared to only 25% of patients in the control group3. Similarly, a recent meta-analysis of studies on acupuncture and low back pain found that patients were 2.3 times more likely to report improvement than control groups4.
At the same time, needling will heal the affected tissues. Over a course of treatments, acupuncture will resolve the underlying condition in addition to treating the pain. Many pain conditions are the result of sport injuries.
Many pain conditions are the result of sport injuries. You can reduce the likelihood of becoming injured by stretching regularly … every day or every other day. When you stretch, think “gentle” and think “sustained”. Stretch only to the point where you feel it, then hold for a slow count of 12. Don’t forget to relax and breathe as you do this! Stretching can become a rewarding daily ritual. Don’t be surprised to find it addictive.
Even if you are suffering from pain, gentle exercise is good for most conditions. Yoga, tai chi, walking, swimming or cycling can all be helpful … consult with your practitioner to find out what will work best for you.