A Non-Surgical Approach to Healing Herniated Disc

Using traditional Chinese medicine to holistically address the causes of a slipped disc and improve recovery

A Non-Surgical Approach to Healing Herniated Disc
Registered Chinese medicine practitioner Dr. Yuen Oi-lin shares how to repair a slipped disc using conventional Chinese medicine. (Adrian Yu/The Epoch Times)
May Cheng

A slipped disc is a common affliction. Sometimes caused by gradual age-related wear, herniation also can occur by lifting heavy objects improperly or lifting while twisting the body. Uncomfortable symptoms, such as pain or burning in a shoulder, arm, or leg, can then hinder everyday movement.

Asia Medical Specialists Clinic in Hong Kong describes a slipped disc, also known as disc prolapse or hernia, as the cushioning tissue (intervertebral disc) between two vertebrae tearing and allowing the inner gel to seep out, which can irritate nearby nerves, often causing low back and neck pain or lower limb paralysis.

Registered Chinese medicine practitioner Dr. Yuen Oi-lin shared how traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) repairs a slipped disc. She says TCM adopts a holistic treatment method that varies from person to person. Finding the root cause of the patient's disc herniation is key to successful treatment.

She said patients who opt for TCM treatment of a slipped disc find it to be effective, less likely to relapse, and best of all, surgery-free.

Ranked No. 1 in orthopedic treatments worldwide, the Hospital for Special Surgery wrote on its blog that a slipped disc in the lumbar spine area (lower back) doesn't slide around. Vertebrae discs are made up of a ring of tough collagen that surrounds a jellylike substance called the nucleus pulposus. If there's a break in that outer ring, the nucleus pulposus can escape through the crack and compress a nerve.

“The intervertebral disc is the cartilage between the spine connected to the vertebrae, which acts as a shock proofer and shock absorber, which allows buffering to maintain the spine's integrity,” Yuen said.

How the Condition Occurs

Yuen pointed out that slipped discs usually occur in the 4th to 6th vertebrae, that is, between the waist and the hip. The phenomenon is often related to people frequently lowering their heads to look at electronic devices.

“Disc herniation happens especially to middle-aged patients as their bodies begin to age. Cartilage is the first to degenerate," she said.

“If you maintain a specific posture for a prolonged period, the cartilage deformation between the vertebrae will cause nerve compression in the lower limbs, resulting in pain and paralysis."

How Is a Slipped Disc Diagnosed?

How do patients know that they have a slipped disc? Yuen said there are several ways to detect the condition in TCM.

Does the pain increase when the patient coughs or sneezes? Is it difficult to kneel or squat? If these symptoms are present, then herniation is suspected.

Yuen has her patients lie on their backs and put one foot on the knee of the opposite leg and repeat using the other foot. A slipped disc or bone spur is very likely if the patient feels any pain or strain when doing this move.

Western Versus Chinese Medicine

TCM refers to physical pain, numbness, dysfunction, or paralysis. It denotes that numbness or paralysis is motivated by wind, cold, and humidity. These three factors cause blockage and are called inflammation in Western medicine.

In Western medicine, physicians rely on an MRI result to make a diagnosis.

In Chinese medicine, the remedy depends on whether a patient requires TCM to repair the kidney and liver and revitalize the qi deficiency and blood circulation within the internal system.

TCM results are positive if combined with cupping for blood circulation and acupuncture therapy for blockage.

A Case Study

One of Yuen’s patients was a government official who had a herniated disc. The 40-year-old couldn’t walk because of his severely damaged knees. After visiting the hospital and obtaining an MRI report, his physician confirmed that he had a slipped disc requiring surgery to remove the cartilage.

His colleagues referred him to Yuen for a second opinion. She suggested a 10-session treatment plan, including cupping, acupuncture, and Chinese herbal medication. She said the patient would be able to resume work within two weeks.

Why shouldn’t surgery be a patient's first choice?

In the Western clinical approach, a surgeon would surgically remove the slipped disc. Since the disc would grow back, the patient might be risking the need for another painful operation in the future.

Chinese medicine focuses on treating the cause of disc herniation, so it’s less likely to relapse. TCM believes in maintaining the human structure unaltered as much as possible. Removing any body part may cause meridian damage and side effects, and isn't a permanent cure.

Five organs are linked to various body parts through meridians, and each part of the body is managed separately. The traditional Chinese medical book "Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon" points out that the “kidney controls the bones.” Therefore, treating a disc herniation means also nourishing the kidneys.

In addition to oral medication, acupuncture that targets the kidney meridians is used to accelerate the healing process.

If a patient experiences a sense of cold air leaving from their skin or sweating more than usual, it indicates that the toxicity is dissipating through unlocked acupoints.

Yuen emphasized that looking after our muscles and bones helps eliminate diseases. Hence, maintaining a natural spinal curve is essential to our health. Many acupoints on both sides of the spine are connected to the viscera (internal organs). If a particular visceral cancer mutates, pressing that organ's acupoint will trigger pain.

Care for Spinal Discs

Yuen suggested three simple steps to maintain a healthy spine: Squatting and stretching the spine and a healthy diet.

1. Zama Step

Relax your body. Make sure your hips are straight. Bend your knees slightly. Place your hands in front of your abdomen as if they're holding a ball and hold for 15 minutes. Practice daily. You may sweat slightly during the exercise, indicating that detoxification is happening.

2. Stretch

Stand straight with your legs slightly apart. Slowly bend forward until you can grab your ankles. If you can't reach your ankles, hold your shins. The more you practice, the more you feel your spine opening up.
 Traditional medicine practitioner Dr. Yuen Oi-lin demonstrates stretching (L) and Zama step (R). (Photo by Production Team of 100 Ways to Heal Your Body)
Traditional medicine practitioner Dr. Yuen Oi-lin demonstrates stretching (L) and Zama step (R). (Photo by Production Team of 100 Ways to Heal Your Body)

Yuen said she enjoys stretching and meditating in the sun.

“Sunlight enhances microcirculation, prevents varicose veins, and strengthens our muscles and bones,” she said.

However, she reminded patients to start slowly and avoid overdoing it, so as not to sprain or fracture the cervical spine.

3. Diet

As for TCM food therapy, Yuen recommends a soup containing hairy fig, Himalayan Teasel root, Millettia, and pork shank. The soup is family-friendly since it nourishes and restores the qi in the internal system, which helps prevent blockages and improves blood circulation.

Yuen suggests that beans and nuts are ideal foods for nourishing our kidneys. Any beans—such as soybeans, black beans, and pinto beans—will do.

The doctor joked, “Interestingly, the beans are shaped like our kidneys.”

May Cheng is a senior media personality who served as a radio host for the D100 Hong Kong program "Trapeze." Born in a family that practices traditional Chinese medicine, May has been fascinated by it since childhood and developed a great enthusiasm for it. She has studied courses related to traditional Chinese medicine and is now the host of the program "The 100 Doctors, The 100 Treatments."