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Lower Back Pain? Turn to an Ancient Chinese Exercise for Relief

One of the delights of traveling outside the U.S. is touring marvels of the ancient world. We moderns are amazed at structures like the Pyramids, Chichen Itza, Stonehenge, the Acropolis and many more. They evoke not only wonder but also curiosity: how were such structures erected without the aid of heavy machinery? Part of the answer lies in what was surely hard labor: cutting stone, hauling it for many miles, and fitting it together as layer after layer rose higher.

No doubt it was literally back-breaking work. The lower back—called the lumbar spine or lumbar region—consists of five vertebrae (backbones) known as L1 to L5. This is the part of the spine that bears the most body weight, and physical stress leads to lower back pain. Surprisingly, even in today’s work world of machinery and electronics, back pain is the second leading cause of missed work, and 85% of cases are caused by injury or spinal deterioration in the lumbar spine.

Gifts from ancient China

The ancient Chinese gave us another ancient wonder: the Great Wall. It is visible from space at a low earth orbit, and it looks like a long, crooked spine running roughly east-west across the hilly land. It was built to keep nomadic invaders out of imperial territory. We can only imagine the aches and pains endured by the builders, mainly soldiers and convicts, as they slaved away at it. Undoubtedly, their lower backs suffered greatly.

However, China’s ancient world also included great health and healing arts. Today, many of these gifts have come down to us and are now used in holistic or complementary medicine. One of them is called qigong (pronounced “chee gong”). It is a system of slow exercise movements related to tai chi and it is practiced by millions of people around the globe. The name means a work using your body’s “qi” (chee) or life force.

Ba Duan Jin qigong

Over a thousand years after the Great Wall was completed, records exist about a unique set of eight qigong movements called Ba Duan Jin. The name means Eight Pieces of Brocade or Eight Silken Movements, suggesting a smooth, soft, silky feel. The movements are performed in order from first two last. They are performed slowly and gracefully with mindfulness. A relaxed stance completes each movement before starting the next. Each one has a descriptive name like “Two Hands Hold up the Heavens” or “Drawing the Bow to Shoot the Hawk” to help remind the practitioner of the form.

Research shows that Ba Duan Jin lessens lower back pain

Ba Duan Jin (BDJ) is very popular in China as a general health practice, and is widely used to relieve lower back pain. Research shows that this is more than folk medicine. A team of researchers from Tianjin, China analyzed nine previously published studies that altogether involved 519 patients who practiced Ba Duan Jin to lessen lower back pain. From the studies, they gathered the following points:

  • Compared to regular exercise, BDJ showed more improvement in pain management
  • BDJ provided moderate pain relief in a degree superior to ibuprofen
  • When done in addition to other active treatments (massage, routine medications plus other exercise), BDJ added some additional improvement in pain management
  • BDJ plus electrotherapy was more effective than electrotherapy alone
  • BDJ improved disability and orthopedic scoresi

When ancient medicine isn’t enough

One more gift from the early days of China is the wisdom of Confucius, who lived a few hundred years before the Great Wall was built. He said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Anyone who has suffered with chronic lower back pain knows that it feels like an endless journey.

It’s always best to address lower back pain as early as possible and not ignore it. There are many ways to nip it in the bud, and prevent it from recurring. However, some lumbar pain is caused by degeneration in the L1-L5 vertebrae, especially worn down cartilage in the facet joints. If it goes far enough, it results in very painful compression of the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord. In such cases, ancient medical or holistic practices may not be enough to alleviate the pain.

It is important to seek medical help to diagnose the source of pain that is not responding to other treatments. If arthritis of the facet joints in the L1-L5 vertebrae is the source, the Sperling Medical Group offers a noninvasive, MRI-guided outpatient procedure to deaden the nerves causing pain without affecting other movement or muscle function. It is called MRI-guided Focused Ultrasound. For more information, visit our website.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you have health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.

iLi H, Ge D, Liu S, Zhang W et al. Baduanjin exercise for low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2019 Apr;43:109-116.

Facet Pain