Acupuncture for Herniated Disc Pain

A herniated disc happens when the soft interior of one of the discs that separate the spine’s vertebrae begins to bulge. These discs act like cushions between the vertebrae, giving the spine flexibility and absorbing some of the shock from everyday movement. The bulging is the result of a tear in the outer, more fibrous portion of the disc. Strains, injuries, and degeneration of the discs with age can cause these tears. Disc herniations can happen anywhere on the spine, but are most common in the cervical region (neck) and the lumbar region (low back). Local pain and sometimes nerve sensations are the most common symptoms of a herniated disc.

Anti-inflammatory treatments for minor herniations are common in Western medicine. While these treatments can help reduce pain, from a long-term healing perspective this is an incomplete approach. As practitioners of Eastern medicine have known for thousands of years, the inflammation process – characterized by the generation of heat – increases the flow of blood and nutrients to the injury site in order to stimulate the healing process. (That’s why, in most cases, you should treat injuries with heat, not ice.) Anti-inflammatory medications will reduce pain, but they will also hinder the natural healing process.

Studies have shown that Eastern Medicine can be an effective treatment for a herniated disc. Each type of therapy serves a different purpose – but as a whole, these treatments stimulate the body’s natural pain killing mechanisms, increase blood circulation, relieve the buildup of fluid in spinal nerve roots, and speed up the healing process.

  • Acupuncture addresses both the lower back pain associated with a herniated disc as well as the degeneration of the discs. In Eastern Medicine, this degeneration is linked to kidney deficiency and poor circulation, so acupuncture works to stimulate the flow of qi to the kidneys. And in several cases, acupuncture has been shown to be a viable alternative to complicated surgery to treat cervical disc herniation.
  • Moxibustion – heating mugwort and placing it over the herniated disc – can increase qi and blood circulation to stimulate healing.
  • A variety of herbal remedies can be used to reduce pain, increase blood circulation, and strengthen the vertebrae and tendons in the lower back. Some are used topically, while others are taken as medicine.
  • Tui na massage, which focuses on restoring energy circulation, is often used in conjunction with acupuncture, moxibustion, and exercise. This type of massage uses a range of motions from kneading and rubbing to tapping and pressing.
  • In the recovery stage of treatment for a herniated disc, functional exercises can strengthen the core muscles of the waist and abdomen. This increases stability in the lumbar region and helps prevent the recurrence of an injury or the relapse of lower back pain. Aerobic exercise is important, too – but hold off on high-impact activities such as running, as this will put added stress on your back.

There are many options for treating a herniated disc, so be sure to talk to your acupuncturist if you have any questions.

Ask Your Acupuncturist

What can I do to prevent a herniated disc?

The discs between the vertebrae do wear down over time, but some preventive measures can be taken. Exercises that strengthen the waist, abdomen, and back will strengthen the back and increase stability. One example is the flying swallow style position, which elevates the chest and lower limbs using the abdomen as a pivot point. I am a big fan of Pilates, which is a physical fitness system that focuses heavily on core strength. It’s also important to stay at a healthy body weight, maintain good posture when sitting and standing, use proper lifting techniques, and keep your back in a neutral position while you sleep.