Understanding Back Pain - McDowell's Herbal Treatments


I always advise my patients to look further into understanding their own personal back problem. I also point out that it is simply ridiculous and foolish to just accept the fact of a back problem and spend your time trying this or that pain remedy without ever really finding out why your back is painful.

The educational part of any back pain consultation is to explain the following three fundamental ideas.

Most of these have never been properly explained before to these patients who may have been treated for back problems for many years, seen numerous doctors and specialists and paid $000's of dollars for consultations and medications over their lives with no permanent reversal resulting.

1. Back pain can be either muscle spasm pain or nerve pain and it isn't hard to work out which of these categories the patient falls into.

Nerve Pain:

A pure case of nerve pain is very rare indeed so that 95% or more of those patients sitting in front of me are really suffering muscular spasm or cramping pain. Nerve pain if severe, normally does not heal on its own easily, it is also normally pretty severe and continuous, giving the patient very little relief and causing sleep deprivation and the rest.

The folk who suffer this are sometimes those whose spines have calcified or degenerated in some way causing physical irritation by bony structures on the nerve fibers themselves. These people also are often very strong and often upright people who soldier on in spite of horrific pain levels and have tried everything else before coming to see me as an alternative therapist.

Sciatic Pain is primarily a nerve type pain also originating, in the back but felt mostly in the pelvis and legs and this will be discussed later in this article.

Muscle Spasm Pain:

This is the common one and I always explain to my patients that the backbones (vertebrae) have no strength on their own. As I say to them, if you were to stack 4 or 5 of these knobbly little bones on the desk in front of you, the column will crumble and fall as they have no strength of their own at all to stay upright.

Rather like the guy wires on a tent, the strength of the backbone is all in the ligaments and muscles, which attach one vertebra to its neighbors and to other structures off on both sides. Rather like a tent also, you need to have all the ropes tensioned correctly and evenly to leave enough flexibility to give a little with the wind and to not pull the tent itself apart, through over tensioning.

As I said, 95% of my back patients fall into this category and their pain is as a result of improper tensioning and/ or of differential tensioning of some of the muscles and ligaments. In short they are suffering from muscular cramp pain, which is not in the spine itself but in supporting muscles and their attachment points.

2. Back pain resulting from Injury, Overuse or Accident is the second main area of misunderstanding.

Most patients believe their pain is a result of over-use, accident or injury and they often identify an incident or time in their life when episodes of back pain started to become a problem as being the time the damage was done. They played contact spots, lifted heavy loads, carried babies on one hip, or worked shearing sheep or in the mines or whatever.

Once again it is only a very small percentage of people, who have had a back injury in the past, that are suffering from the actual damage done in the injury.

The vast majority are actually suffering from muscle spasm habits and resultant lack of flexibility that developed during the time of their sports career, heavy lifting demands or whatever incident or circumstance they put the pain down to.

I always illustrate this by examining the circumstances of the latest incident of pain. Catching themselves one handedly when stumbling, swinging a baseball bat to show a child how to use one, after not having played for 15 yrs, reaching a parcel down of the top shelf or jarring their back in a motor car accident or minor fall are all common examples.

If you are habitually carrying altogether too much tension in your back as a manifestation of the stress of responsibility for example, and if some of that tension is not balanced evenly, lifting a 2lb parcel down from high on the left hand end of a shelf is enough trigger to an attack of back pain.

In this case the lift didn't put your back out, you pulled it out yourself because of the unbalanced tension and lack of flexibility. This even applies to most cases I treat of Whiplash in car accidents.

This is worth repeating. - Most acute back pain incidents are a result of:
"Pulling Your Own Back Out".

This why the patient who wrote to me this morning complaining that "I have a severe back pain some times, especially when I wake up in the morning. I'm 44 years old." Prompted me to write this article.

3. Backs, Necks and all the other bits of our body's come with a lifetime guarantee, warning lights and a maintenance service contract.

Back pain, stiffness, scoliosis, lack of flexibility and all the rest are warning lights to alert you to the fact that you need to look into the cause of the problem and make whatever changes are required to stop these symptoms.

If you disable the warning lights by taking painkillers and make no attempt to understand and correct the underlying problems, you must expect that you will ultimately break down. Your life quality, your ability to participate in physical activities and even to play with your kids and grand kids will all be compromised.

My main Treatment Approaches:

Back Pain - The "Valerian Type" of Person:

At night we are supposed to be relaxed and most of us are. However, some people have a nervous system which manifests stress primarily in physical tension and they often wake up tired and with sore jaw muscles from clenching their teeth at night or sore hands where they have slept with their fists clenched and their finger nails digging into the palms of their hands.

They may also tighten up on muscles and ligaments, which are already held overly tight, and, a posture they adopt during the night may allow any differential muscular tension to pull the spine out of alignment. Whenever our spine is out of alignment the body being on constant alert to protect itself considers this situation to be a threat to the spinal cord. It responds to such a threat by locking all the muscles around the part of the spine in the area concerned (it is called guarding).

Normally it then takes time, sometimes weeks, to work out a spasm of this sort even using massage, chiropractic adjustment and heat.

If the underlying problem of habitual over tensioning as a response to stress is never addressed, this sort of problem can and does become chronic.

The particular sort of nervous system, which reacts in this manner, responds very well indeed to the herb Valerian, and this is the mainstay of my treatment for this sort of problem. In a treatment mix I include with Valerian, other herbs to support circulation locally, to reduce inflammation and spasm and to break into the habit patterns, which allow these patients' habitual tension to abate.

Back Pain - The "Rock Water Type" of person:

This sort of back pain is the strong persons type. These people just keep on going without allowing their ever stiffening back, (or neck or shoulders) to stop them. They suffer more and more pain, which they mostly ignore, as they feel they "have to keep going regardless", or somehow that admitting to pain is weak, or fearful that the others they are responsible for are depending on them to keep going.

I live in a rural community and farmers are classic Rock Water types. They keep going on and on, they eventually tell their doctors or their wives tell their doctors and they are prescribed more and more painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs and they ultimately show up in my consulting rooms looking for treatment for the side effects of these medications. They mostly feel that they have worn their backs out through hard work and only want me to give them something so they can keep going.

After listening to these people report in monosyllables on their problems I sometimes surprise them by advising them to stop using the rear vision mirrors in their vehicles when reversing.

I make this comment to open up a discussion on flexibility, which is really at the heart of their problems.

Strong and hardy people just keep going. Often when tired or stressed they just tighten up the muscles in their back and spine and "soldier" on. Stiffen their back and keep going forward. Anyone who does this habitually and for years and years will end up shortening all the ligaments in their spine to the point where the ability to bend forward or backward and more importantly, to twist their spine is severely reduced. They therefore cannot twist in the seat of their tractor or car and look back over their shoulder and often this restriction is more pronounced on one side.

The enormous tension and lack of flexibility eventually causes the vertebra themselves to begin to either fuse or break down, not to mention the disk pads separating each vertebra. The pain is muscle pain and much later after all the physical damage is done it becomes nerve pain as nerves emerging from the spine become pinched.

These people need more than anything else to regain their flexibility and regular heat, massage and yoga exercises is an ideal treatment. Mostly of course these very same people will not do yoga or put time aside for massage and self care of other sorts because they don't care for themselves and don't see how they can stop or make any time for such things.

To get them started therefore I suggest they practice reversing without their mirrors and that when they do they switch from looking over one shoulder and then the other. I ask also that they be aware where the movement comes from and to notice that one part of it comes from the neck, one part from the spine itself and one part of it from actually rotating your pelvic bone also in the direction of the twist when trying to get the maximum twist to look back over your own shoulder.

I then have them practicing this twisting movement on a hard chair and quite quickly they notice improvements in how far around they can twist on each side and in the character of the pain they are experiencing.

The beauty of the Rock Water type of people is that once you can provide a simple and practical demonstration of the benefits of something, they will take it on and stick with it. They are that type of person.

The reason I refer to them as the Rockwater (or Oak) types is that these two members of the Bach Flower range of Homeopathic essences specifically address the unyielding nature of this type and allow them to soften somewhat this habitual response to stress and responsibility. It also assist them in regaining some of the strength which they are proud of and which they use to carry their responsibility loads which are often so heavy as to crush many of the rest of us.

In a herbal mixture besides Rockwater, Oak and Elm I will put in the appropriate nervous system herbs while at the same time offering healing and nourishment to their bones and ligaments to reverse the degeneration which is a result of habitual over tension on the spine and neck. Anti-inflammatory herbs are included for a while and I also encourage them to massage my equine hoof oil into their backs and necks before going out to work each day to improve the circulation and mobility locally of all the tiny ligaments and muscles, which have been shortening for all of their lives.

I have a particular acquaintance I often describe to my patients who has driven a dozer all of his working life mostly doing roadwork's and dams on farm properties.

You can probably appreciate that dozers do not have any suspension in their chassis at all and mostly they don't have very effective suspension in their seats either. In short they jar the spine ferociously just driving along on a hard surface. When they are pitching and bucking over broken rock or dragging their ripping tynes through such country the jarring can be incredible.

This particular man is not a patient of mine, but does have pretty severe degeneration of the spine through the Rockwater type of tension habits I am describing above and suffers from back pain. However he only really suffers when he is not working, which is the interesting part. Dozer work is basically going backward and forward thousands of times in a day and each time he reverses he swivels in his seat to look over one shoulder or the other so he can see where he is going to line up his next push or to watch the ripper tynes when he is ripping forward. He maintains enormous flexibility by this twisting one way and then the other and this is what keeps his back pain free while working.

He thought the Dozer work was wrecking his back and that he would have to stop. I was able to explain that the opposite was the case, and that he had to keep it up, because it was what was keeping his back from freezing up and keeping him from chronic pain.

Back Pain - The Weak Back person type.

The opposite to the Rockwater person is the one who does not want to work, does not want to carry responsibility and has a slouching posture which says to everyone who is looking at them; 'I am a poor thing, I am submissive, I am helpless and I need someone to hold me up".

These people also suffer from ligament and muscle tension problems but it is that some of their muscles and ligaments are not tense enough and too flexible and do not provide enough support for their spines. This produces differential tension problems like curvature of the spine and scoliosis and their habitual posture reinforces all this to produce a weak or "spineless" individual.

These people are much harder to help, as often they don't want to be helped.

Sport is one of the better ways to bring such people back into our world. If they can be attracted to take up some sport even if the encouragement is packaged up to appeal to their vanity and I often resort to this. I encourage people to go to the Gym, take up Rowing, Skating, Horse Riding or Gymnastics to firm up the flab these low vitality people always have, even if slim. The exercise and the confidence it builds is often enough to turn them around and to get rid of the back pain.

The herbal mixtures I formulate for such people are much more to do with improving circulation and blood quality and breathing than the spine itself and I also include nervous system herbs and homeopathic remedies aimed at stiffening the spine, the resolve and determination, and the posture to get them out of their dependent mode and "standing on their own feet".

Back Pain - The Submissive Osteoporosis Type:

Older females in our culture often develop curvature of the spine and neck with osteoporosis and degeneration of the neck bones. It does happen in males but not so often, and it is blamed on lack of calcium and hormonal changes post menopausal.

Older females in traditional African and Asian societies often stand tall and straight, carrying loads on the heads well into their 60's and in most cases have very few dairy products in their diets and certainly no hormone replacement therapy.

Our older females are not spineless as in the weak back types above, but they have been conditioned to believe that they must be submissive to the will and needs of others, mostly their husbands and families.

In order to try to live up these ideals they habitually adopt submissive postures which involve rounding the shoulders and lowering their head and, after carrying themselves around like this for half their lives, often with unexpressed anger seething inside of them until something gives.

The unnatural posture causes degeneration in the neck bones and neck and back pain.

The lack of personal nourishment, the lack of reciprocal support; their unsatisfied personal needs; the disempowerment; and the repressed anger causes a whole range of very serious health problems from cancer on down.

As you can imagine, the counseling and treatment for this type of person is complex and different for every single case. However I often have to teach them first to say "No", or perhaps "No Dear!" as a start to getting their own life back.

Sciatic Pain:

There is a reflex reaction operating between the top end of the spinal column and the bottom end. People who carry stress tension in their necks as a response, generally to their coping with responsibility, very often end up with lower back tension in the lumbar region.

This often does not cause much pain in itself, but can result in calcification in the lower vertebrae, which can physically irritate the myelin sheath or 'insulation', of the nerve fibers emerging from the spinal column from the lumbar vertebra. These nerves join together to form the bundle of nerves which go out across to the sciatic notch in the pelvis and down to serve the legs.

It is the rubbing of the inflamed nerve fibers as they pass though the sciatic notch, which cause the shooting pains and discomfort characterizing Sciatica.

My herbal approach to this problem is to work on the lower back tension and to physically nourish the myelin sheath and the herb which does this best is Hypericum or St Johns Wort which may be given internally in extract form and rubbed into the lower back and the sciatic notch as a component of a massage oil.

Teaching the patient to release neck and shoulder tension and to manage their responsibilities more effectively may form part of the total solution to sciatic pain.

The Holistic Approach:

As you can see, I do not approach back pain from the point of view of herbal painkillers or the acceptance of degenerative processes outside of our control. I see them much more in terms of over tension, unbalanced tension, lack of flexibility and habitual attitudes.

This is a good example of the Holistic approach to health:

Look at the person.
Help them understand what are the underlying factors, which have led them into their poor health situation.
Provide them with the information they need in order to begin to help themselves.
Provide them with treatment to assist their bodies to reverse the processes, which led them into ill health.

Pain management assistance may be a feature of this process but focusing on this as the primary response is very poor and disempowering medicine.

In summary then, some of the tools and recommendations I make to individual patients presenting with back pain could consist of;

To the osteoporosis pain sufferer: Say NO to those who are 'on your back' to whom you are being submissive, over-caring or who are taking advantage of you.

To the postural back pain person: Stand up for yourself, take responsibility for something (anything), get fit and get a life.

To the rigid unbending back pain person: Ease up, examine your inflexible attitudes, learn how to bend and to look behind.

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McDowell's staff Herbalists can not diagnose your disease or illness. What they can do is offer a herbal program to assist with healing, after you have had advice from your doctor or specialist. If you have unexplained pain or symptoms, seek medical advice.

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