Low Back Pain and Sciatica: Chinese Medical Approach

It is estimated that up to 80% of the world's population will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, with the lower back the most common site of pain. As many a half of all adult North Americans experience back pain in any given year.

There are many reasons for low back pain and sciatica, including degenerative disks, osteoporosis, poor posture, weak abdominal and back muscles, and physical, mental or emotional trauma. It should always be suggested that a person seek x-rays to determine any structural damage that might be affecting the low back.

Western medicine most often treats back pain with pain relief prescriptions or NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs). These drugs provide excellent short term pain relief by blocking the production of pain-causing substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins, however, are also vasodilators that help to enhance circulation. By inhibiting their production, the blood supply to the muscles and joints will also be decreased, creating problems and prolonging recovery. NSAIDs also have well-know potential side effects such as gastric irritation and liver damage.

Another option in Western medicine for chronic back pain due to disk degeneration or osteoporosis is surgery. It is important to remember that disk degeneration and osteoporosis are cumulative, ongoing processes, which are not addressed by back surgery. Back surgery is therefore not a permanent solution for these conditions in most cases, and there is a great risk that further disk degeneration or osteoporosis will develop in another location.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: Low Back Pain & Sciatica

While there is no definitive therapy to resolve low back pain and sciatica, acupuncture, herbal therapy, and tui-na have produced lasting relief for many, and their use has dramatically increased in the Western world in the last few decades. Recent studies1 are providing further proof that traditional Chinese medicine can provide safe, effective, and long lasting relief for low back pain and sciatica, without producing the negative side effects of pain relief pills, NSAIDs, or surgery.

Pain, in Chinese medicine, is due to an obstruction in the flow of Qi, blood, lymph or other fluids. With back pain and sciatica, as with other forms of pain, Chinese medical practitioners use acupuncture, herbal formulas, and physical therapy to increase the circulation of Qi, blood and fluids, especially in the area of discomfort. When circulation in the tissue increases, Qi, blood and fluids are allowed to flow more freely, the muscles in the area become more relaxed, and pain reduction follows in most cases. Occasionally the pain in the effected area may initially intensify, followed by the muscle relaxation, tissue repair, and then the diminishing of the pain.

My approach to back pain combines acupuncture and tui-na, and sometimes herbal formulas. The acupuncture may include electrical stimulation and moxibustion. This combination has proved effective in approximately 75% of the clients I have treated.

Herbal formulas that I have found effective include: "Meridian Passage" for acute pain in the low back; "Meridian Circulation" for chronic, achy pain in the low back and joints and for sciatica; and "Collagenex" for osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic muscle pain. I also often recommend two common Chinese liniments, red tiger balm and posumon, to be applied topically.

1 For studies and information concerning Chinese medicine and back pain, please go to:

If you would like to pursue this form of treatment, contact me at the following telephone number or e-mail address. You will be asked to fill out a detailed intake form before your first appointment. You may pick this up at my office, or I can e-mail it to you.


Calvin Dale Smith, BA, MSc, DOM
Doctor of Oriental Medicine (USA)
Riverside Acupuncture and Wellness Centre
2211 Riverside Dr., Suite 106
Ottawa, ON K1H 7X5
cdalesmith at calvindale.com