Be Well: The Chinese Medicine Approach to Common Conditions

Aches and pains don’t have to be an accepted part of life. A root cause is usually at play, say natural health providers, and individualized treatments for things like headaches, lower back pain, and ear infections can help reverse course.

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

Heading off against “rescue medications”

We will all experience a splitting headache at some point in our lives, and thankfully, most of us can turn to pain relievers. But for some headache sufferers, the pain is so debilitating it can lead to missed workdays and disrupt our everyday lives.

Instead of focusing on symptom relief, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other integrative therapies search for global answers that unmask the real reasons headaches may persist. At Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) Bloomington Clinic, practitioners from different disciplines work together to interrupt the damaging behavior patterns that trigger a patient’s pain. “Chronic headaches can become severe enough that a patient can’t function,” says Sarah Weaver, an associate professor at NWHSU. “Nobody should live like that.”

Whether a patient meets with a naturopath, acupuncturist or chiropractor, the practitioner will complete a whole-body exam, discuss the patient’s lifestyle and diet, and dig into health history like head and neck trauma. “Our goal is to find the root cause rather than cover it up with rescue medications,” says Weaver.

Integrative care is not an all-or-nothing proposition; practitioners work with patients taking conventional medications to enhance drugs or reduce the amount deemed necessary.

For example, chiropractic treatments can slow the frequency and intensity of headaches, and adjustments to the joints and spine can prevent pain from rebounding once the effects of the migraine drug have diminished.

Massage therapy is another noninvasive technique that helps reduce pain. “During a session, I ask patients where they feel their headaches—in their head, neck, or shoulders,” says Nancy Erickson, a board-certified massage therapist at NWHSU. “I want to know if the pain affects their range of motion and how long the symptoms last.” Whether caused by a car accident or an awkward sleeping position, headaches can stem from a host of musculoskeletal issues. “Massage can relieve head pain by loosening the muscles and tight bands of tissue to increase circulation and blood flow to the area.”

Ear infections don’t have to be a “normal” part of childhood

A childhood rite of passage, an ear infection will strike 80 percent of children by the time they reach the age of three. These infections often lead to disruptive behavior, appetite changes, and high fevers. For some kids, they come in rapid succession and never seem to go away. While a child eventually grows out of ear problems, stopping them in their tracks is critical. The damage from chronic ear infections can cause hearing and balance issues later in life.

Despite taking antibiotics, it’s not uncommon for children to experience consecutive infections.

For parents concerned about antibiotic overuse or for children who don’t benefit from medication, chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture can also help shorten the course of infection and reduce frequency. Practitioners can modify their treatments for children who are fearful of needles or uncomfortable with adjustments. An acupuncturist can use a tuning fork to stimulate acupoints around the neck, ears, and head, while a chiropractor will gently manipulate the joints and tissues.

The first line of defense for low back pain

Lower back pain is a significant cause of disability. A simple twist or turn, and you’re down for the count. Before you head to the orthopedic doctor for steroid injections or back surgery, Western medicine providers often suggest taking a more conservative path: chiropractic and acupuncture.

Chiropractic treatments restore motion to the joints and spine, allowing muscles to function better and relieving pressure in the lower back. “Once a patient can move more freely, we can re-educate the muscles to work properly and prevent future episodes,” says Michele Vincent, a chiropractor at NWHSU. Chiropractors also treat patients with ultrasound, a highly effective therapy that penetrates areas of acute and chronic pain. “When we reduce joint and muscle inflammation, we can increase activity level and decrease pain,” she says.

Acupuncture is another modality that can ease musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain. Using needles, Tui Na massage, or cupping, acupuncturists can draw blood flow to damaged tissues to start healing them. The process, which also balances the body’s chi, can provide short-term or long-term relief depending on the patient.

While low back pain can appear at any time in our lives, the presentation changes as we age. A treatment for a young person who feels achy or stiff after, say, spending several hours in the garden, will look different than it does for an older person who experiences shooting pain from just standing up.

Because each patient is different, one modality might help more than another. Having access to a multidisciplinary team of practitioners benefit those seeking care at an integrative health clinic.