Two views: Treating back pain


TRADITIONAL: Lorie Paterson, physiotherapist at the Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre in Bonavista, Newfoundland

Most of my patients are referred by their family physicians. Their back pain could be caused by tight muscles, joint irritation, disc problems or simple wear and tear. First, I figure out the cause by doing a careful analysis and assessment of where the pain is and how it behaves. Then I create a treatment plan based on the diagnosis, the patient’s range of motion and the severity of her pain.

If the pain is caused by weak muscles, I start with stretching and strengthening exercises, many of which are for the muscles around the problem areas. Sometimes, the patient lies still as I move her through positions to challenge her muscles and improve flexibility.

I also work with other therapies, called modalities, such as using electric currents to stimulate the muscles and heating or cooling the muscles to relieve inflammation or dull pain. Acupuncture may be helpful; I recognize that not all treatments work for everyone. I’ve seen cases where patients have severe muscle spasms and are unable to do the exercises I prescribe.

Acupuncture may decrease their pain enough so they can do the exercises. Physiotherapy may work with other therapies for correcting tight muscles, a postural problem or a slipped disc.

ALTERATIVE: Diana Tong Li, acupuncturist at the S-T/L-C Acupuncture a Natural Medicine Clinic in Halifax

Back pain is caused by blockages along meridians, which are energy pathways inside the body, rather than pinched nerves or arthritis, as Western medicine believes. The du pathway runs along the spine, through the neck, over the head and down to the nose. If the energy, or ch’i, can’t flow freely, there’s pain and sometimes illness, too.

With acupuncture, I manipulate the energy in the body using thin needles and encourage its movement in areas that are blocked. My goal is to balance a patient’s ch’i so everything in her body – her muscles, organs and blood flow – functions properly.

Before inserting the needles, I examine the patient’s pulse, tongue and ears to assess how well her organs are functioning. All of the organs have a point on the meridian that runs through the back. Back pain might be related to ch’i deficiency in the kidneys, for example. Blockages don’t happen overnight: An energy imbalance can contribute to blockages over weeks, months or even years. After the first few sessions, patients will notice relief, though it takes time for the pain to disappear completely.

In Chinese medicine, we don’t often use the word cure. Acupuncture is effective only if patients take care of themselves and minimize their stress by making diet and lifestyle changes.