Lower back pain is all too common an ailment. Some researchers say that 80 percent of all Americans older than 30 suffer from chronic lower back pain at some point in their lives. Sitting too much—especially in chairs with a forward tilt—is the biggest cause, but incorrect lifting and poor posture also contribute.
One of my patients, Mike, injured his back so badly that he couldn’t get out of bed. At work, he had been building walls, lifting heavy blocks and bending over to cement them in place. One morning as he was vigorously brushing his teeth, he felt something “go”—a burning pain shot through his lower body. He managed to drag himself to the couch, where his wife found him at noon, still moaning and rubbing his back in an attempt to loosen it up.
The next day he called my clinic. I don’t usually make house calls, but Mike sounded desperate, so I stopped by his place on my way home. He was still on the couch and looked antsy. “I’m more than ready to go back to work,” he said, “but my back is definitely not.”
Try This: Ginger Compress
Chinese Bag of Tricks
When I examined him, the back of his tongue had a greasy yellow coating and his pulse was tight, meaning that I could feel tension in it. According to Chinese medicine, this indicates that he had internal “stagnation,” or inhibited blood flow caused by pain, a state that’s especially common after an injury. “Moving the blood” helps remove pain-producing toxins and speeds tissue repair, which is why herbalists emphasize paying attention to the internal balance of all the organs, tissues, and fluids, even when the injuries are external.
I opened my bag of tricks and pulled out an herbal liniment, an herbal cream, a porcelain spoon, and a moxa stick (a cigar-shaped bundle of powdered mugwort). I managed to get Mike on his side with his back toward me and his knees bent and cushioned by several pillows. On the inflamed muscles in his lower back, I vigorously applied the aromatic herbal liniment, which contained warming and dispersing essential oils such as ginger, cinnamon, wintergreen, and American calamus (Acorus calamus, also called sweet flag). For about 10 minutes, I worked it in with moderately deep, long kneading motions to encourage the circulation of blood and qi (vital energy). I used an alcohol-based liniment, which is best for acute conditions such as Mike’s because the alcohol evaporates, helping eliminate heat and promote good immunity and blood circulation for quick repair.
Next, I firmly scraped Mike’s back with the porcelain spoon for a few minutes to further encourage blood circulation, “pull up” toxins to the surface, and relieve congestion. This left long, dark-red marks where I had scraped, which meant that his back area had substantial blood stagnation.
Mike suffered the treatment with good humor, but when I lit the moxa stick (short for moxibustion) and blew on it until a bright red smoking ember was produced at the end, he looked doubtful. I explained to him that the moxa stick is made from mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris latiflora) and that the Chinese have been using it for centuries as both a stand-alone treatment and in conjunction with acupuncture to help heal injuries and relieve pain. A healer waves the moxa closely over the painful area, but not close enough to burn. It’s thought to be absorbed through the skin, stimulating the immune and nervous systems. (Note: Don’t use moxa during the first two days of an acute injury.)
A Slow Recovery
After we finished the massage, scraping, and moxibustion, I encouraged Mike to try and sit up. He swung his legs over the side of the couch and slowly stood. After a few tentative steps, he said, “This is awesome. I can actually walk without biting my lip.”
I was happy to see his enthusiasm, but I knew it would be a few days before he could return to work. Before I left, I told Mike how to make a ginger compress that would keep the blood circulating and encourage continued healing. I also left him a moxa stick (available from many herb shops) and a jar of the warming salve Tiger Balm to apply vigorously several times a day. Within a week he had made a full recovery.
Note: This article is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member and licensed acupuncturist. He is the author of St. John’s wort: The Mood Enhancing Herb (Botanica, 1997), Stress and Natural Healing (Botanica, 1997) and many other books.