Moxibustion

How to Treat a Herniated Disc With Acupuncture & TCM

By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.

a herniated disc can cause neck pain and pain in the lower back
a herniated disc can cause neck pain, pain in the lower back, and sciatica

Why do I have a sharp shooting pain down one leg? What should I do if my neck is stiff and hurts to turn? What can I do to help a spasm in lower back? Any of these kinds of pain may be caused by a herniated disc, which presses on the spinal nerves. Acupuncture can be an effective treatment for relieving the symptoms of a slipped disc, while also speeding the healing process–all without negative side effects.

A herniated disc, often referred to as a “slipped disc,” or a bulging disc, occurs when damage to one of the shock-absorbing discs of cartilage that sit between the vertebrae creates pressure on the nerves and muscles of the spine. Also called a prolapsed disc, this condition creates inflammation and swelling in a localized area of the spine and can cause severe pain in the neck, lower back pain, sciatica pain, and tingling that radiates down the leg.

The vertebral column, or backbone, is made up of vertebrae (individual bones) and intervertebral discs. These discs provide cushioning in between the bones and act as ligaments that hold the bones together. The discs create a shock absorption system that protects the spinal column, and are made up of tough, fibrous outer layers of cartilage, with a gel-like substance on the inside. If there is damage to the tissues of the outer layer, the soft, gel interior can be pushed outwards and breach the outer wall. This can create pressure against the nerves of the spinal column, resulting in symptoms of nerve entrapment: pain, numbness, and/or loss of ability.

A herniated disc, also referred to as a “ruptured disc,” most often occurs in the lumbar spine. A lumbar herniated disc may cause severe lower back pain if it is pressing on a nerve. Pressure on the sciatic nerve area can also cause shooting pain, burning pain, numbness, and/or tingling in one or both legs–a condition commonly referred to as sciatica, also known as lumbar radiculopathy. The sciatic nerve is actually a large bundle of smaller nerves that connects the base of the spine to the top of the leg, travelling through the buttock area. There is a sciatic nerve bundle on each side. About 90% of cases of sciatica are related to herniated discs.

Cervical disc herniation refers to a prolapsed disc between one of the seven vertebrae of the cervical spine, or neck area. Compression of the nerves due to a herniated disc in the C2 area can cause headache, or pain in the eye or ear. Herniation of a disc further down the cervical spine happens most commonly in the C5, C6, or C7 area, which can lead to neck pain and/or shoulder pain.

Most of the time, sciatic pain or neck pain due to nerve compression in the spine goes away gradually on its own, but it can cause a lot of suffering over the course of several weeks or months before resolving itself. Medical treatment for herniated disc pain typically involves the recommendation of rest and immobilisation and the use of anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxers, and pain relievers. However, lack of movement does not really help improve the root cause of the pain, and the use of pain medications or steroids is often accompanied by unwanted side effects. Acupuncture treatment can significantly reduce acute pain related to sciatica, neck pain, shoulder pain, and low back pain due to slipped discs, often providing immediate, short-term relief of severe pain, while helping, long-term, to reduce inflammation and help heal nerve damage.

Signs of Herniated Disc

When a disc herniates, pain can be sharp and intense. Depending on which disc is affected, there may be neck pain, low back pain, or sciatic pain in the leg, foot, or buttock area. Pain or numbness are caused by the inflammation of the nerve area that is being compressed by the extrusion of the center of the disc.

  • A cervical herniated disc (in the neck) may cause burning pain in the side of the neck or sharp pain in the back of the neck. Or there may be a more subtle sensation where the neck is tender to the touch. The pain is usually worse when performing vigorous activities or when twisting or turning the head at a certain angle. The overall movement of the neck and head may feel limited and stiff.
  • Pain may radiate down the arm and cause an “electric shock-like” sensation in the hand and fingers.
  • Weakness in the muscular movement of the shoulder, arm, hand, thumb and fingers may result from the pinching of the nerves of the cervical spine.
  • A lumbar herniated disc (in the lower back) is more likely to cause pain down the leg than in the back. Usually the pain is just on one side of the body. This radiating pain caused by compression of the sciatic nerve can be sharp, burning, and very intense. 
  • Herniation of a lumbar disc can also cause pain in the low back or buttock. This pain may be of the “throbbing” type, or feel like a spasm. It may be helped by applying cold or heat to the area. The pain typically is worse after sitting or hunching over for a while, or when bending over from the waist.
  • The sensation in the buttock, hip, leg and foot may be more like tingling or numbness than searing pain.
  • “Foot drop” is when the nerve compression makes it difficult to fully pick up the foot when walking, so that the toes drag on the floor.

The kind of pain caused by a herniated disc can come on quite suddenly and strongly. Fortunately, the pain caused by most herniations of spinal discs resolves in a matter of time without surgery.

What Causes Herniated Disc?

Slipped discs, or bulging disks, happen most often to people between the ages of 30 and 50. The ruptured disk may happen due to one sudden movement, like lifting something heavy, twisting an awkward way, or even a strong sneeze. But prior to such an event, there was probably some weakness already developing in the outer walls of the disc. 

Degeneration of the discs can occur over time due to aging. A chronic herniation can develop slowly over years and cause mild symptoms. An acute herniation might happen as the result of some trauma, like an accident, which could create more serious damage to the outer layers of the disc (the annulus fibrosus), allowing the jelly-like material inside (the nucleus pulposus) to extrude, or squeeze out of containment.

Surgery for herniated disc is only recommended in rare cases (10-20%), sometimes if the prolapsed disc is affecting the nerves in such a way that bladder or bowel function is negatively impacted. Surgery may also be considered if pain is severe and continues for a long time without getting better. Herniated disc surgery attempts to relieve the nerve compression by removing some of the disc tissue. In cases where there is more extensive degeneration of the spine, a spinal fusion procedure may involve “fusing” the vertebrae together with screws while removing the original disc tissue and replacing it with an implant. These types of surgeries for herniated disc may help alleviate pain, but there can still be a long recovery period, and the pain is not guaranteed to go away.

Can Acupuncture Help a Herniated Disc?

moxibustion
Moxibustion cultivates heat energy

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been developed over the course of thousands of years to deal with all types of pain conditions. In the TCM view, herniated disc pain is caused by:

  1. Injury to the spine
  2. Invasion of cold, wind, or damp
  3. Liver and/or kidney deficiency

In addition to acupuncture treatment, which involves the insertion of very fine needles into specific points along the meridians of the body, we also use treatments such as moxibustion and infrared heat lamps to bring warm energy to parts of the body. TCM treatment for herniated disc will often focus on strengthening the Qi (life force energy) and blood flow to the kidneys, and clearing dampness and bringing warmth to the whole lower back area.

One clinical trial conducted in a hospital demonstrated that acupuncture treatment combined with the application of moxa warm needle therapy with infrared heat and gentle exercise resulted in reporting of 95% improvement in pain related to lumbar herniated disc.

A recent systematic review of acupuncture treatment for disc herniation concluded that acupuncture provided better results than pain medications or lumbar traction.

A study that focused on long-term outcomes for patients with lumbar disc herniation showed that ten years after receiving electric acupuncture treatment for their pain they reported positive long-term results, acupuncture having helped to resolve their sciatica symptoms.

Top 5 Tips for How to Heal a Herniated Disc Naturally

walnuts are a great source of Omegas
walnuts are a great source of Omegas

Most pain due to herniated disc will resolve itself in about six weeks without medical treatment. In the meantime, there are some things you can do to help reduce pain and restore freedom of movement.

  1. Seek out treatment from a qualified acupuncturist. A combination of acupuncture, herbal supplementation, tuina massage, moxibustion, and infrared heat therapy will go a long way towards relieving pain and encouraging healing.
  2. Heat and Cold Therapy. Try using a heating pad or hot water bottle to apply gentle heat to the lower back or neck. Alternate with icing the affected area. This helps bring more blood flow to the area, reduces inflammation, and soothes stiffness.
  3. Stay active. It can be tempting to stay in bed when lower back pain and sciatica are causing intense pain or tingling sensations. But immobilisation does not really do anything to help heal nerve pain, and it is actually more beneficial to keep the muscles of the back body strong. Engaging regularly in low-impact activities like walking, biking, or swimming will help keep endorphins flowing and your mood positive better than bed rest will.
  4. Check your sleeping position. Staying in bed can also hurt when you have a slipped disc. Use a pillow to bolster your knees to help relieve tension in the lower back and keep the spine in proper alignment. Use a firm orthopedic pillow to keep the neck aligned.
  5. Nutrition for nerve health. Certain nutrients can be especially beneficial for building and maintaining nerve tissues. Emphasize B-6 and B-12 vitamins, Vitamin E and Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in your diet and with high quality supplements. Nuts, fish, and good plant-based oils should be consumed regularly. 

Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and good nutrition, as always, will go a long way towards helping ensure that a pain condition resolves itself fully and does not return. 

Acupuncture Near Me for Herniated Disc

At Art of Wellness, Dr. Tan and Dr. Cai have over 30 years of experience helping patients with acute and chronic pain due to neurological conditions. Pain due to a herniated disc can be effectively reduced by regular acupuncture treatment, while Chinese herbs and therapeutic massage can help bring healing to the nerves and spine, and help prevent future problems with herniated disc and sciatica.

 

 

*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.

 

How to Treat Fatigue With Acupuncture and TCM

By Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D. and Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D.

fatigue
Feeling like you can’t get out of bed and face the day?

With so much going on in our lives these days, it is no wonder that many of us feel exhausted and tired all the time. Stress and lack of sleep are so common now that many people are easily tired. But when it gets to the point that a person is always tired, so much that he or she never feels rested and has trouble engaging in normal daily activities, fatigue becomes a serious health concern that requires attention.

Extreme fatigue is a mental and/or physical lack of energy that goes beyond normal tiredness. Physical or muscle fatigue prevents a person from engaging the body in the ways he or she is used to being able to, while being mentally exhausted causes sleepiness and an inability to focus the mind enough to perform one’s usual tasks. Transient or acute fatigue occurs when a person is deprived of sleep over a few days. In general, it is recommended that adults get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. However, a large published report showed that more than a third of Americans regularly sleep less than seven hours per night. Poor sleep habits do more than cause excessive tiredness; they can lead to all kinds of chronic health problems.

Conventional medicine has a limited understanding of fatigue causes, and does not offer much in the way of solutions for fatigue symptoms. Whether fatigue is acute or chronic, acupuncture and TCM offer proven benefits without any negative side effects.

Causes of Chronic Fatigue

Constant fatigue and extreme exhaustion that last for more than three to six months may be signs of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). As a syndrome, CFS/ME is a collection of symptoms that are often seen together, but is not fully understood by the medical community as a disease. CFS symptoms include:

  • Extreme exhaustion that is made worse with physical or mental effort (post-exertional malaise, or PEM), i.e., feeling completely spent after any exercise or mental stress
  • Sleep is not refreshing
  • Foggy head, cognitive impairment
  • Joint pain
  • Constant sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Severe headaches
  • Extreme sensitivity to lights, noises, smells, foods and chemicals

It can be difficult for doctors to come to a firm diagnosis for different types of fatigue, partly because the symptoms are “invisible” and subjective, but also because there are other health conditions with similar symptoms, in particular fibromyalgia. The causes of chronic fatigue have not been fully identified, but it is believed that CFS can be triggered by infections, immune dysfunction, nutritional deficiencies, extreme stress, or a combination of these factors. Some studies have indicated that people who experienced childhood trauma may have increased risk of developing CFS, and that psychological stress due to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is linked to CFS.

As of now, conventional medicine has no officially approved treatment protocol for chronic fatigue. Generally, patients are instructed to rest, pace themselves while practicing gentle exercises, and learn to avoid triggers that make their fatigue worse. Doctors may offer medications to help insomnia and antidepressants to help with emotional instability, but these types of drugs can have negative side effects and create dependency. Traditional Chinese Medicine works on a deeper level to address headache, dizziness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain with fatigue, and eye strain symptoms.

Sometimes constant tiredness is attributed to adrenal exhaustion. Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is not a formally recognized medical diagnosis, but this, too, is a collection of symptoms that is theorized to be related to chronically low levels of the adrenal hormone cortisol. Cortisol is produced in short bursts when we are under stress; this is often called the “fight or flight” response. Going through an extended period of stress might lead to the adrenal glands becoming depleted. People with adrenal fatigue symptoms like tiredness, trouble sleeping, and cravings often rely on caffeine and sugar to help them get that burst of energy. Adrenal fatigue treatment by TCM helps to naturally balance the hormones, while lifestyle modifications implemented over time help resolve feeling so tired all the time.

How Is Fatigue Related to Stress?

daytime fatigue related to insomnia
Fatigue can impair daytime functioning.

Clearly there are links between stress and fatigue. Stress is the body’s reaction to difficulties and situational changes. When stress builds up over time, the body and mind become exhausted. Chronic stress can lead to emotional exhaustion. Lack of focus and motivation leads to poor decision making, and then a person can no longer take proper care of herself and her loved ones. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression become intrusive and disruptive to daily life. In today’s world, we are all subjected to many stressors every day. Simply processing a constant onslaught of new information on top of all of the other things we are expected to manage is bound to cause mental fatigue. Feeling overwhelmed is the new normal, but in order to prevent it from becoming a serious health problem, we need to address emotional fatigue.

How Is Fatigue Related to Sleep Problems?

We need nourishing food and restful sleep to function optimally. If an individual does not prioritize healthy eating and getting enough sleep, eventually the body becomes seriously depleted. Feeling tired after eating is a sign that one might be eating the wrong foods, or at the wrong times. Extreme fatigue after eating is also an indicator that when a person does sleep, he or she is not getting good quality sleep. Working on behavioral modifications to improve sleep quality is certainly an important part of addressing fatigue, as is finding a physical activity program that improves energy.

How Is Fatigue Related to Hormones and Women’s Health?

Women often experience fatigue as they go through hormone changes. Feeling lethargic due to PMS fatigue or period fatigue is common. Fatigue during pregnancy can cause women to feel weak and tired. Women going through menopause commonly feel over tired. These types of hormone related fatigue can be helped by balancing the hormones with acupuncture and herbs.

How Can Acupuncture Help to Fight Fatigue?

The most fundamental concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine is that of “Qi,” the life force energy that flows through the body. According to TCM, fatigue is related to the quantity and quality of Qi a person is able to maintain. Qi deficiency, then, is the primary cause of fatigue. Deficiencies can show up in different ways:

  • Spleen-pancreas – This is the organ system that directs digestion. When this is weak, people might feel bloated after eating, tend toward loose bowels, feel weak and depressed, and bruise easily. This can be due to erratic eating patterns, especially too many sweets. Worrying or over-thinking can also be part of the problem. Many people go through stressful periods when they exhibit these behaviors and symptoms.
  • Lung – The lungs do the job of extracting Qi from the air we breathe. Sometimes lung Qi is weakened when we do a lot of talking as part of our work without taking enough breaks. Emotions of grief and sadness can also weaken the lungs. This may present as being prone to coughs or colds.
  • Blood Deficiency – This often goes together with Qi deficiency. A heart-related blood deficiency can lead to feelings of anxiety and restless sleep. A liver-related blood deficiency can cause eye strain symptoms.
  • Yang Deficiency – Lack of heat energy in the body causes weakness with body aches and fatigue. This differentiation can cause menopausal fatigue and low back pain.
moxibustion
Moxibustion cultivates heat energy

An acupuncture practitioner will first perform a thorough consultation and exam to identify the specific symptoms of fatigue and the factors potentially causing them. A course of treatment might include not only acupuncture to stimulate points along the meridians, but also moxibustion, a topical therapy used to cultivate warm energy.

One formal study of patients diagnosed with CFS showed significant improvement in both physical and mental fatigue among participants who received daily acupuncture over the course of ten days.

Another study of chronic fatigue patients who were given acupuncture as a complement to conventional treatment showed greater improvement over patients who did not receive acupuncture.

Acupuncture has been shown to increase serotonin levels, which help improve sleep and mood. This means it can be an effective treatment for fatigue and depression, without the side effects and dependence that are often caused by SSRIs (antidepressants that work on serotonin levels in the brain).

Chinese herbs are used in customized combinations to address imbalances in the organ systems. TCM herbal remedies are an integral part of treatment for chronic fatigue, and should be combined with your acupuncturist’s nutritional recommendations to nourish Qi and reverse fatigue.

Top 10 Tips to Beat Fatigue 

While acupuncture treatment and herbal support will go a long way to combat fatigue, it is critical that patients make meaningful lifestyle modifications. New habits will not only improve symptoms of fatigue, but prevent exhaustion in the future.

  1. Timing is everything – The adrenal hormones will be more balanced if you follow natural circadian rhythms. This means, ideally, rising with the sun and going to bed well before midnight. Exercise early in the day rather than stimulating the body with activity in the evening. Stick with the same sleep routine, even on weekends and holidays.
  2. Cut caffeine – Drinking coffee or sodas to stay sharp is actually very detrimental to your health. Think of it as borrowing energy; you’ll have to pay it back later, with interest. If you are used to multiple caffeinated drinks per day, start by reducing them gradually. Then, take at least a few weeks off of caffeine entirely. 
  3. Avoid Alcohol – Even though it may feel like a glass of wine helps you relax in the evening, alcohol has a negative impact on the quality of sleep, often causing you to sleep lightly and wake in the night. Again, start by cutting back, and try to abstain entirely until fatigue has improved.
  4. Drink more water – Dehydration reduces mental alertness and physical stamina. Drinking 8 glasses of water per day ensures that nutrients and oxygen are moving smoothly through the bloodstream and that toxins are being excreted properly. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty; by then, you are already dehydrated. Remind yourself to drink at regular intervals.
  5. Eat more frequently to maintain blood sugar levels and energy. Smaller meals eaten every 3-4 hours throughout the day
    walnuts omega 3
    Walnuts are a great source of Omega-3s

    are better than 2-3 large meals. 

  6. Get enough Omega-3 – Fatty acid supplementation has been shown to reduce symptoms in CFS patients. Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include: fish, fish oil, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
  7. Short bouts of exercise – Even when the mildest exertion can be exhausting, it’s vital to establish and maintain regular physical activity. A short 15 minute walk outdoors will help get the blood pumping, and exposure to sunlight is crucial for getting Vitamin D to boost immune function.
  8. Qi Gong – This gentle form of exercise is part of the holistic health care system represented by TCM. The focused breathing and subtle movements of Qi Gong are designed to nurture Qi. Specific exercises will help to bring in more Qi, encourage Yang fire energy, and relieve stress.
  9. Yoga – Another practice that goes beyond physical exercise, yoga encourages specific breathing and meditation techniques that harness “Prana.” Similar to concept of Qi, Prana is life-giving energy that we can take into the body from the environment through deep breathing.
  10. Rest – Prioritizing rest means more than getting enough sleep at night. Change your mindset from one of constant “busyness” and productivity. Give yourself time to rest, read, meditate, listen to music, laugh, and just do nothing. If you have to convince yourself, remember, “doctor’s orders–I have to rest!”

Acupuncture Near Me for Dealing With Fatigue 

Now more than ever, extreme stress, lack of sleep and activity, and constant triggering events can cause chronic fatigue. Fatigue is feeling more than tired; it can become a real health concern if you are so physically and mentally exhausted that you cannot get up and face your day. Do not hesitate to reach out for help. The doctors at Art of Wellness are TCM experts with over 30 years of experience helping patients heal unresolved traumas, restore balance and replenish their energy. Call today to get started with a treatment plan to banish fatigue.

 

*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.