Chinese medicine for ankle sprains and other exercise-induced injuries

As spring comes into full bloom with the approach of May, people are flocking outside to run, jump, play… and get injured. Such is life! So now is the perfect time to discuss the most common varieties of common exercise-induced injuries: the sprain and its sibling the strain. When you pull a muscle or roll your ankle, it’s likely that you have sprained or strained something.

The broad definition of this painful condition is that you have stretched or torn a ligament (sprain) or a muscle or tendon (strain) without the joint popping out and becoming dislocated. Any time that something pulls or pushes on tissue with more force than it can resist, a sprain or strain is likely to occur.

Once a force is exerted on tissue and something tears, Qi and blood rush in to clear away the damaged tissues and bring nutrients in for the process of repair.

As this process gets under way, the area swells and will often become red, hot and painful. If the injury is severe enough, the joint may become too tender and swollen to bear weight or to use. Over a few days or weeks, the intensity of the repair process will decline, and so the swelling and pain will subside gradually until all is well again. This is the ideal circumstance, in which very little intervention from the outside is needed.

Unfortunately, this happy progression is not always what occurs.

One reason sprains and strains in the limbs are more often discussed is that the tendons and ligaments in our limbs don’t have excellent blood flow through them (fancy medical words: they are not well-vascularized). This means that the process of inflammation and repair has less resources to work with, a bit like the difference between a car crash in a city center and one in a remote area. The ambulance will get there as fast as it can in both cases, but it might be a while if you are far out in the wilderness.

The other tricky variable to consider in how quickly an injury will heal is the underlying physiology if the individual person. Here is a very zoomed-out overview of the organ systems that could be involved in healing a musculoskeletal injury from a Chinese medicine perspective:

  • Liver feeds blood to the tendons and ligaments
  • Spleen feed nutrients to muscles
  • Lung ensures that Qi is circulated to the whole body
  • Gallbladder moves fluid in the joint spaces
  • Heart is in charge of moving and controlling blood in the whole body
  • Sanjiao (Triple Burner) moves fluid in every space between organs and body cavities
  • Kidney builds and maintains the bones

You can see that many organ systems are involved in the repair of injuries!

But which organs are impacted and to what degree is often best explained as an outgrowth of your constitutional tendencies. If you have digestive issues that your spleen is already dealing with, then its ability to repair your muscles will be compromised.

If you have liver Qi stagnation from a stressful job, the liver will have a harder time getting blood to the tendons or ligaments to repair them. When people are blood-deficient the liver doesn’t have much to work with in the first place.

 

“This is why treatment for an injury in Chinese Medicine is so individually tailored; it’s often a matter of treating underlying problems that are preventing the healing process from perfectly unfolding.”

 

What can you do the next time you roll your ankle or throw out your back?

Well, first-off, you can come see me to get some care.

Moxibustion (which I’m preparing to do here) can be great for certain types of injuries

Acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and especially topical herbs are very important for healing injuries quickly and completely. In addition, here are some home remedies based on prior imbalances that you can try out yourself:

  • For Liver Qi stagnation (depression, stuck anger, frequent sighing, discomfort in the ribs): journaling, nature walks, talk therapy, exercise
  • For blood deficiency (frequent waking from sleep, anxiety, abnormal-for-you pale complexion, forgetfulness) eating organ meats, leafy green veggies, possibly iron and b vitamin supplementation
  • For Spleen Qi deficiency (fatigue, loose stools, feeling tired after meals, poor appetite) simple foods (grains, sweet potatoes, congee), regular meals (as in at a similar time every day), medicinal vinegars before meals (check out your local Asian market for delicious drinking vinegars), eating meals while focused on the food rather than in front of a screen or in the car.
  • For Sanjiao stagnation (swollen lymph nodes, frequent itching of the skin, swollen and red areas in the neck and ears, chronic illness such as Lyme): proper hydration, gently detoxifying foods like citrus, fresh herbs, and burdock root
  • For Kidney Qi or Yang deficiency (deep exhaustion, low back ache, chronic pain made worse by cold, frequent urination at night): rest, meditation, foods from the sea, quiet spaces, warm compresses

Have fun, take care, and drop us a line if you take a spill!

Written by Rowan Everard


I discovered Chinese medicine shortly after moving to Portland to complete my undergraduate studies. I began my journey as a patient, but after several years of being an increasingly curious patient I found myself drawn into the formal study of this medicine. In Chinese medicine, I found tools that helped me to transform myself, and which I have seen lead to dramatic positive shifts in patients.