“Am I ever going to feel better?”
If you’ve struggled with a long-term illness, you may have asked yourself this question.
Maybe you’ve suffered with chronic pain, or a challenging digestive disorder, or a recurrent skin problem or some other ailment for so long, you’ve forgotten what it feels like to be well. To be ‘normal.’ Maybe somebody has told you your condition is permanent. Perhaps you’ve been given a diagnosis and told it will be with you for life. Maybe you’ve even stopped asking yourself the question if you can be well again.
There is a lot I could say about Chinese Medicine’s perspective on chronic illness. I could tell stories of miraculous cures I’ve heard from my teachers and mentors, or discuss my own successes as an acupuncturist and herbalist in treating complex diseases.
I could even talk about my own experiences as a patient, suffering from disorders that were never supposed to get better, but which did with regular treatment. But I’m not going to do any of that here.
Instead, I would like to let the tradition of this medicine speak for itself.
Here is what it says on the subject of chronic illness:
“Now, when any of the five major organ systems has an illness, it’s as if one was pierced by a thorn, or soiled by dirt, as if there were a knot, or something closed. A thorn may have pierced one for long, and yet it can be pulled out. A stain may have existed for long, ad yet it can be cleansed. A knot may have been tied for long, and yet it can be untied. A closure may have lasted for long, and yet it can be opened. If someone says an illness with a long duration cannot be removed, then that is an erroneous statement.
“Now, those who are experts in the use of acupuncture needles, when they remove an illness, that is as if they pulled out a thorn, as if they cleansed a stain, as if they untied a knot, as if they opened a closure. The illness may have lasted for long, and still it can be brought to an end. Those who state that it cannot be cured, they simply have not acquired the necessary skill.” 2
If you’re feeling hopeless about your health problems, I want you to take a minute and read those paragraphs again. Really let them sink in.
If you are suffering from a chronic illness, I want you to save that passage, and take it out and read it whenever you feel like things will never get better. Health is a journey, and sometimes, it is a long and winding one. The terrain can be rough. It may seem you are moving backwards. There may be moments when you feel lost. But progress is always possible.
As a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, I am here to walk that journey with you, every step of the way. I am completely committed to restoring your well-being, and I invite you to commit to the possibility of your own recovery yourself.
1 This text is called the Ling Shu (靈樞). It’s the second half of a medical treatise called the Huang Di Nei Jing (黃帝內經 ), or the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.
2 This is a paraphrased version of Paul Unschuld’s translation of the Ling Shu. The original text in Classical Chinese is:
If you’re dealing with chronic pain, you‘re not alone.
Over 25 million Americans experience pain on a daily basis, and over 23 million report suffering from severe pain, according to the latest data from the National Institutes of Health.
Pain is not well managed in many cases by conventional biomedicine, which has led to a national opioid crisis among other problems.
Dealing with constant pain is tiring on its own, but throw in the challenge of trying to navigate a healthcare system that seems stacked against you, and a society that demands you justify the validity of your symptoms, and the experience becomes downright demoralizing. Let me assure you though that Chinese Medicine will never ask you to prove the credibility of your experience of pain.
Our first task as practitioners is to listen to you, because it is precisely your own lived experience that will ultimately guide us to proper diagnosis and treatment. Your body has its own innate intelligence, and while pain can be overwhelming, it is also meaningful. All symptoms are messages, and when we experience pain we are experiencing the body trying to communicate something vital to us about the state of our health.
This is easy enough to understand in acute pain (which Chinese Medicine is also very successful in treating): there is damage to body structures and tissues, which makes the nervous system produce the sensation of pain. Pain is also associated with acute inflammation, part of the healing response to injuries. So we can understand pain as an alarm system for the body, warning us of danger or damage. In doing so it, our body is trying to get us to adopt behaviors that will avoid further damage and facilitate healing. If I sprain my ankle, pain should prevent me from using it, which will both prevent additional trauma and allow the injury to heal.
But in chronic pain, the relationship between tissue damage and the sensation of pain is less clear.
Pain can persist long after an initial injury when we would expect the body to have finished healing. And by itself, structural issues and tissue damage often aren’t enough to explain chronic pain. For example, recent studies of medical imaging reveal that many people who have no symptoms of back pain still have degenerative changes in their spine that show up on MRI or CT scans. This implies that structural changes and tissue damage are not in themselves sufficient to cause pain (if they were, nearly everybody over the age of forty would have debilitating back pain). So what causes chronic pain?
From the perspective of Chinese Medicine, health is a dynamic balance between the organ systems within your body, your mental and emotional life (which are intimately tied to the activity of your physiology), and the synchronization of your activity and bodily rhythms with the cycles of the natural world.
In other words, pain is an experience that emerges from complex feedback loops within our bodies and the way our bodies interact with our environment.
When the relationships between these different aspects of your life are in harmony, Chinese Medicine describes this as a state of flow. When these relationships become imbalanced, Chinese Medicine describes this as a state of blockage or obstruction. It’s a common Chinese Medicine saying that where there is obstruction, there is pain. If you suffer from chronic pain, then you understand that this isn’t just a poetic way of speaking. Pain blocks your ability to take part in the activities you enjoy. It obstructs your freedom to move through life on your own terms.
Pain can put your life on hold.
But no matter how long you’ve felt trapped by pain, we have confidence in the body’s inherent self-healing ability. In particular, acupuncture provides us with sophisticated ways of determining where these blockages are occurring within the body, and to provide the proper stimulus for your body to overcome them, restoring a state of harmonious flow. In more biomedical language, we would describe the same process as restoring homeostasis by regulating the nervous system, optimizing the circulatory system, and modulating the immune system.
Regular acupuncture treatment results in lasting changes, and when combined with the full spectrum of Chinese Medicine, profound transformation is possible.
It’s also important to realize that symptoms of pain cannot be considered in isolation from the full context of your life. If pain is an alarm system, then trying to override it (for example, with medications or surgery) is akin to taking the batteries out of a fire alarm without trying to determine why the alarm is going off. As challenging as it can be, we must view chronic pain as an invitation to examine our lives, and ask if some part of our activity is at odds with our own well-being.
In the case of chronic pain, this is not an obviously dangerous activity, like touching a hot stove, and more likely to involve the activities that make up the rhythm of life – our habits of work and sleep, of movement and rest, our diet and even our patterns of thought and emotion. Pain is an attempt by our body to redirect our awareness toward these areas of our life, so we can make appropriate changes in support of health.
Chinese Medicine is not just a set of techniques, but a comprehensive system for attaining and maintaining health, rooted in an ecological perspective. In addition to guiding the healing process within your body, it can also offer advice and suggestions for how to synchronize our activity with the larger activity of nature. Healing from chronic pain with Chinese Medicine then is a twofold process.
With acupuncture, herbal medicine and our other tools, we can help shift how your body processes pain. And in the same way we restore flow within your body, we aim also to restore the way you flow through your life. I look forward to being your partner in that process!
Having a chronic skin condition might sound like nothing more than a cosmetic issue, but if you’ve ever suffered from skin issues, you know their effects are anything but superficial. Skin problems can be heartbreaking, and they affect every aspect of your health.
Worst of all, chronic skin conditions rob you of so much…
- Itching, burning, and other unpleasant sensations rob you of sleep and peace of mind.
- Visible changes to your skin rob of your confidence.
- Avoiding foods that might trigger a flare rob you of the joy of eating what you want.
- Avoiding environmental triggers can rob you of the ease of not worrying if a common product will cause a flare up.
Conventional treatment options aren’t very encouraging.
We have antihistamines (basically ineffective), topical steroids (thin your skin over time), immunosuppressants (expensive, and with potential side effects that include cancer). And that’s pretty much it! Even if some of these therapies help control your symptoms, they’re unlikely to full resolve your problem. Stopping any of them typically cause your skin problems to flare up again, sometimes worse than before.
This isn’t surprising because none of the conventional treatments for chronic skin conditions are fixing the root of the problem. They are just suppressing your symptoms.
But what if there was another way? A natural way to heal your skin from the inside out? What if somebody could offer you a treatment that isn’t just “skin deep”, but really gets at the root of your skin issues?
Chinese Medicine offers this kind of alternative.
We don’t take a one-size fits all approach to health. We are interested in uncovering the specific causes behind your unique presentation and developing a custom treatment plan to help you achieve clear skin and optimum wellness.
Understanding your experience and symptoms are what will ultimately guide us to a proper differential diagnosis. Our treatment approach for somebody suffers from a lot of itching, for example, might differ dramatically from somebody who doesn‘t have itching. The same is true of somebody who has dry skin vs wet or weeping skin, or somebody whose skin flares up with stress vs somebody whose skin flares up in response to food.
We treat these problems differently because the different symptoms show different imbalances within your body.
One of the basic principles of Chinese Medicine is that problems deep within the body manifest at the surface—the state of the outside reflects the state of the inside. That’s why your Chinese Medicine practitioner takes your pulse, looks at your tongue, and performs other kinds of exams to make a differential diagnosis. Understanding the specific way your chronic skin condition has developed, using the science that underlies Chinese medicine, will help us craft the best treatment to help you resolve your problems.
Not just holistic, but collaborative – the Watershed Wellness approach
Amanda Koennecke, Licensed Esthetician, can work with your skin directly, providing services like detoxification, facials, microdermabrasion, and a range of high quality natural products from Eminence Organics to help keep you looking your best. She can also provide a range of suggestions to improve your diet and lifestyle to support this work. Ultimately – the message of this approach to skin health is simple…
Beauty and health are intertwined. When things are balanced internally, that balance will be reflected externally.
When you have serious digestive problems, it can disrupt your whole life!
- Maybe health problems have forced you to rearrange your daily routine and schedule to suit the symptoms.
- Perhaps you dread social events centered on eating and food, because you can only tolerate certain foods, making things socially challenging.
- Most of us hear the message that diet is the ultimate foundation of digestive health. There is always some new diet promising relief – you’ve likely tried them all. You might have gotten some relief from cutting out certain foods, but you feel like this hasn’t really solved your problem.
- Despite your efforts, you find that you still have a very restricted list of foods. On the other hand, your friends seem to thrive on diets including all kinds of foods you’d never be able to touch!
- Perhaps you are taking a laundry list of supplements and probiotics, but it’s not clear how much of an effect these are having.
- Maybe you have an official medical diagnosis and you were told you will have to struggle with these issues for the rest of your life
If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, then you know well how damaging chronic digestive problems can be to the enjoyment and flow of everyday life. Having to manage all of this is exhausting, and doesn’t give you time for much else. Fortunately, there are solutions beyond just tinkering with your diet and adding another supplement.
For thousands of years, Chinese Medicine has understood the importance of the digestive system to human health. Chinese medical theory refers to the digestive organs as “the center” around which the rest of your body’s systems operate. As Chinese Medicine practitioners, we understand that when your center is strong, the rest of you is strong. When the center suffers, so does everything else. And we have time-tested methods of improving your digestive system, methods that go immediately to the source of your health issues.
Allow me to explain how our approach to digestive problems is different
Chinese Medicine likens the digestive system’s role within the body to the Earth or Soil in the natural world. Just as soil can take in fluid and seeds and transform them into verdant plant life, the digestive system can receive and transform food and drink into energy and nourishment for the body.
Let’s run with this metaphor of the digestive system as soil.
Consider planting some special heirloom seeds. You get the perfect seed, plant it, tend to the seeds carefully – a lot of work! Consider then discovering that the quality of the soil itself is poor, or has been overwhelmed by a series of droughts or floods, or was damaged through misuse of chemical fertilizers and aggressive farming techniques. Then, it doesn’t matter how potent our seeds are, or even how much we water them. They won’t be able to take root!
If we want to grow anything, we need to address the quality of the soil.
Making clearer the metaphor, planting seeds, tending and watering to them represent following a balanced whole foods diet. Taking probiotics when needed and learning more about practices like mindful eating can also relate to this tending principle. We can relate the idea of chemical fertilizers to the impacts of antibiotics or other stressors on gut microflora. We can understand the droughts and floods as the effects of other organ systems on the digestion, such as the nervous system.
What you eat does play a critical role in digestive health, but the digestive system itself needs to be functioning well enough for what you consume to be properly received. You can eat an extremely clean and healthy diet, but if you aren’t processing nutrients efficiently, this isn’t going to make much of a difference.
This is where Chinese Medicine comes in!
Regular acupuncture treatment and herbal medicine are treating your terrain, improving the quality of your soil. Another way of putting this is that optimizing your body’s ability to better assimilate what it takes in, making your gut a more inviting place for beneficial microflora, and helping to make sure that your digestive organs are working in harmony with the rest of your body by regulating the nervous system, the endocrine system and the immune system.
And while, yes, you should avoid triggers to your digestive system, we also want to make it so that if your body does encounter the occasional stressor, it can respond more gracefully – without setting off a cascade of uncomfortable or debilitating reactions.
Join us for the first Watershed Wellness holiday food drive – in partnership with the Oregon Food Bank
The cold and dark days have finally arrived, and the only time we’re spending outside these days is to stack firewood or gather bundles of leaves from the lawn. Not without its merits, however–winter is a wonderful time to spend time with loved ones, maybe curl up with a good book and a fire, and honestly, who doesn’t love winter squash?
That said, it’s not an easy season for everybody.
Winter months are tough for families who are struggling to put food on the table. Not everyone has access to groceries. In the spirit of the season this year, Watershed Wellness has decided to partner with Oregon Food Bank to bring you our Winter Food Drive for 2018! Help us help hundreds of families in Oregon have a better winter this season by donating non-perishable food.
Also, for our beloved clients, we’ve decided to run a little drawing for those of you who have appointments during the drive & want to participate.
Details can be found summarized below, or by downloading the flyer, or even checking out our social media accounts regularly.
- We’ll be collecting food for the Oregon Food Bank from November 23 to December 29
- Food collection is centered on the Portland WW location, but Astorians, get in touch if you want to be involved!
- A listing of the foods that are most needed, and other information, is located here – please do read it through.
- We will accept food donations from anyone in the community, regardless of whether they are current clients – and if you just want to make a cash donation to help out, you can do so by
following this link. All are welcome!
- Clients with appointments falling during the drive are going to get a special opportunity
- For every 3 items you bring in during your scheduled visit, you get one entry into a drawing to win a WW Coastal Retreat!
- See flyer for details of retreat – and know some surprises are likely to be added as we get closer to the end of the contest
- Bring in as much as you’re able to give! No limit to how many items you can donate!
- Every three items garners you an entry into the contest, so 12 items = four entries…
- There are still some appointments available, so don’t hesitate to jump on the schedule if you’ve been putting it off. Yeah, we know how it goes. 😉
- If you have questions, Amanda Koennecke is your source – reach out to her at any time.
Let’s come together in community to help all of us be better nourished this year.
In good health,
Your Watershed Wellness practitioners
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?
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!
Watershed Wellness brings you a new series! You’ve received health care from our wonderful practitioners. Perhaps you’ve chatted with them for a quick minute before and after your appointment. But what is your practitioner like in everyday life? To help you on the path to knowing your practitioners better, we’ll start with a fun, informal interview. This quarter’s spotlight is on Rowan Everard, one of our brilliant Chinese Medicine practitioners. Rowan’s strong allegiance to queer/transgender care as well as a focus on chronic/acute pain management makes him a huge asset to both the Portland and Astoria clinics.
We sat down to chat about everything from music, to the kind of health care he admires, to what is so great about the Pacific Northwest!
- Thank you for sitting down to chat! Your patients and colleagues alike LOVE having you in this space. You’ve been at Watershed for over a year now, how’s that year been?
Yes! I feel excited to continue to grow my practice and my connections to the community of SE Portland. It’s been wonderful working with so many talented practitioners.
- What was the last awesome concert you went to?
- If money was no object, where would your next dream vacation be?
- What’s your favorite neighborhood in Portland and why?
North Portland/St John’s; it’s got such a lovely view of the hills and such good food.
- What’s in your Netflix queue right now?
The new Star Trek, of course.
- If you weren’t a healthcare practitioner, what would your next career choice be?
Probably an aid worker for the UN or Oxfam
- What do you love most about the Pacific Northwest?
That we have access to almost every kind of climate and topographic feature in this state; deserts, mountains, rivers and forests!
- Favorite cuisine?
Lately I’ve been really into Chinese street food.
- Out of the five basic natural elements (earth, air, fire, water, ether), which one do you identify with the most? As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, you’re required to answer this question! (Kidding, mostly).
- It’s your day off and you have no responsibilities. How are you spending your leisure day?
Hiking somewhere in the forest, most likely.
- Your top five favorite movies?
The Fountain, Shortbus, But I’m a Cheerleader, Fargo, and Bound.
- What’s your favorite season of the year?
- Which do you prefer, tea or coffee? Any favorite tea makers or coffee roasters?
Coffee. I’m partial to Equal Exchange because their business model is fantastic and their coffee is high quality.
- Would you rather read a book or listen to a podcast?
Listen to a podcast/book.
- What was your “aha!” moment that made you realize you wanted to be a healthcare professional?
I was imagining being a professor or working in an office somewhere. Then I realized that I would rather be working with people one on one than pushing papers around somewhere!
- Three words that describe your personality?
Empathetic, loyal, passionate.
- Where are you from originally, or where did you first call “home”?
The Chicago suburbs.
- What’s in your music queue right now?
- Where do you hope your practice lands in the next five years? What’s your biggest goal and hope with what you do?
I just want to help people heal and become the best physician I can be. Wherever that takes me, will be somewhere I’m excited to be.
- What is a health care modality that fascinates you, that you’d like to learn more about, or that you just greatly admire?
Functional neurology is super cool, and they seem to take a very Chinese Medicine approach to the body.
Stayed tuned for the next Practitioner Spotlight segment – coming in May!
Editor’s note: This interview was done by none other than Amanda Koennecke, despite the fact that Rowan is listed as the author. 🙂
One day as a medical intern during my schooling, a faculty member came in for a treatment for acute pain. He had just rolled his ankle outward, which is the harder and more painful way, and it was swollen almost to the same size as his knee. He wanted to know if I knew how to do acupuncture for acute pain, because he was leaving for a vacation the next day, and wanted relief! I said yes, and did what I considered to be a fairly simple acupuncture treatment to drain heat (inflammation) and move blood. We also applied a poultice of Chinese herbs guided by the same principles.
I’ve seen countless successes with acupuncture for acute pain since that time as an intern. Classical Chinese medicine, as I have written before, is designed to treat the most common maladies that people experience. However, because of the relatively recent introduction of Chinese medicine to the American system, combined with some structural problems in our healthcare system itself, means that people rarely consider an acupuncturist when they are injured. The way that injuries are approached from a Chinese medicine context is quite different from how they are approached in biomedicine (also called Western medicine).
Biomedicine, let’s be clear, is responsible for incredible recoveries – seeming miracles in many cases. For treatment of trauma, and enacting life saving measures in the face of poor prognosis, biomedicine is incredible. However, some have found that full treatment of those injuries to a pain free state, or overall treatment of chronic pain, seems not to be as well developed in this system. Could this be because the approach to acute injuries in biomedicine comes from work in extreme circumstances, such as battlefield medicine & high performance sports contexts?
If you consider this possibility, it does make sense, because people dealing with extreme circumstances tend to innovate and create useful technologies. Many pioneering approaches have come out of battlefield medicine, such as ready-made tourniquets and quick-clot. There is a dark side here, though: both sports and battlefield situations have different aims than regular civilian life. They both require people to be ready to exert themselves again as quickly as possible. This is not the same thing as healing an injury as fully as possible.
In fact, sometimes healing as quickly as possible can impede fullest recovery over the longer term
A simple illustration of this can be seen in the RICE protocol. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. It has long been the standard approach to sprains and strains, and it comes from sports medicine. Icing an injury certainly does cause the swelling to go down. It allows someone to put weight on the joint again sooner, and get back on the field.
After the first day or two however, as the intense heat of swelling recedes, it begins to introduce cold in the site. Cold tends to slow biological activity, and can kill cells. From a perspective in Chinese medicine theory, cold injuries Yang, Qi and blood. In my clinical experience, and that of my teachers, this can lead to instability in the joint as it heals, and increased scar tissue. In extreme cases, it can an acute injury and creates a chronic one. Using acupuncture for acute pain – before it becomes a chronic condition – may be part of the answer!
How do acupuncturists look at acute injuries differently?
We’ll return to sprains in later posts, but for now let’s examine how Chinese medicine theory relates to acute injuries. There are various types of acute injuries, of course: breaks, cuts, punctures, dislocations, crush injuries, and endless variations and combinations of those types. From a CM perspective, what all of these types of injury share is that they cause Qi and blood stagnation. Wait – blood stagnation? You may wonder “how can a bleeding cut or similar be blood STAGNATION?” There’s a lot to say about that, but let’s summarize by saying that we define blood stagnation as any situation where blood is not flowing properly inside of the vessels. Being outside of the vessel, and pooling between layers of tissue, qualifies.
This becomes more clear if you imagine the process of wound healing with clotting, scabbing over and then scarring. Qi stagnation happens anytime that the body’s abilities to communicate is compromised, even at a cellular level. As cells are destroyed by an injury, dead zones of communication are created.
Stages of injury in Chinese medical theory
Acupuncturists treating acute pain recognize three stages that all acute injuries move through.
- Stage 1: The site of the injury becomes hot and swollen, and dead tissue builds up, which was think of as heat toxins. The body sends Qi and blood to the site to repair the damage.
- Stage 2: Some of the acute heat swelling recedes, and stagnation of Qi and blood due to tissue damage begins to create pockets of cold
- Stage 3: All acute heat and swelling are gone and only stagnation remains, largely as scar tissue, which leaves the area vulnerable to wind and cold becoming trapped.
Our acupuncture for acute pain treatment strategies flow naturally and rationally from these stages of healing.
- Stage 1: We drain heat toxins, stop bleeding and move Qi and blood
- Stage 2: Some draining and moving and some warming methods are used
- Stage 3: Warming and nourishing methods used, some moving Qi and blood but more gently
When treated properly with the above methods, injuries tend to resolve more completely. We accompany the patient through all of the stages of healing, giving them support every step of the way. This leads to a much more stable joint/limb/body cavity, with less scarring and often less pain. Simply put : acupuncture for acute pain helps avoid needing treatment for chronic pain down the road. While acupuncturists absolutely can, and do, treat old injuries – preventing them is much more satisfying.
What you can do on your own for acute injuries
You can always come see me if you get hurt, I specialize in acupuncture for acute pain! But, sometimes treatment isn’t feasible – or not feasible soon enough! In that case, here are some take-home strategies for self-treatment!
- Sanhuang San (pronounced Sahn Hwahng Sahn): known as herbal ice, this external herbal formula clears heat and moves Qi and blood, thus reducing swelling and pain. It works with the body to improve circulation, rather than shutting it down. You can mix the powdered herb with any ointment and apply thickly to the site of the injury, like icing on a cake. Do not use on open wounds! You can find the powder here, among other places.
- Warm/cool hydrotherapy: you can improve circulation in and out of the area by alternating warm and cool soaks or washcloths. Shoot for 10 minutes of one and 10 minutes of the other, for no more than an hour at a time. This will help flush toxins out of the area and then assist the body in bringing the circulation back.
- Don’t ice after the first two days! Really, please don’t. Use warm/cool hydrotherapy instead – protect that yang qi!
- Massage out bruises. Be gentle, of course, but from a Chinese medicine theory perspective, bruises are stagnant blood that needs to be broken up – moved. A little goes a long way here!
Use your injured body part gently and stretch. Circulation of Qi and blood is vital to the healing process, and needs to be balanced with rest. Listen to your body as you learn your limits during your healing process.
Have you ever tried acupuncture just after an injury or accident? If so – what was the result?
It’s a dilemma that trans-masculine people know all too well: the need to reduce the painful experience of dysphoria on the one hand, and concerns about longterm health on the other. At first, the decision is easy; we strap down our breast tissue somehow some way, whether with ace bangs, commercially-made binders or compression shirts. The internal alarm bell that goes off when we look into the mirror or down at ourselves quiets, and we finally get some relief. All seems well for weeks, maybe months.
Unavoidably though, a new problem arises: pain.
Where the pain resides exactly depends on the person and the binding method, but it will arise. Compression of our rib case, and the soft tissues beneath, can lead to a wide variety of problems. Rib pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and even scary chest pain can all becomes staples of daily life during binding.
Let’s examine how to think about this situation using the tools & science of Chinese Medicine. In this way of thinking, the trunk of the body is divided into three compartments, or Jiao. The upper Jiao contains the lungs, heart and pericardium. The middle houses in the liver, gallbladder, stomach and spleen, while the lower is the home of the kidney, bladder and both intestines. The final organ, the Sanjiao or Triple Burner, is a network of water passages that connects all three for the purposes of transport and communication.
In addition to the organs, we also have meridians or Chanels associated with each organs, as well as larger channels that connect all twelve.
The most-often-used metaphor for this system is a watershed that runs through the deepest parts of our bodies, which then consolidates and emerges into broad rivers between the muscles and fascia, finally concluding as small streams at our surface. What a nice metaphor – and it has broad utility. This network, according to Chinese medical theory, carries information, regulates water metabolism, and ensures that homeostasis (the balance inside our body that enables health) is maintained by subtly responding to all of the weird things that happen us throughout our lives.
Given this system’s intricate levels of communication through different kinds of tissues, imagine what might happen if we took the entire thing in the upper and middle Jiao, and squeezed. Not just once, but constantly, every day, during every waking hour and sometimes sleeping hours as well. One can imagine that all sorts of processes could be negatively impacted!
Here are a few of the potential consequences, on this view:
Blood flow: blood is hugely important process that our bodies use to transport nutrients, gasses and yang (life force) from place to place, and its functions are especially associated with the heart, pericardium and liver. If blood flow is impeded, these organs can become either too full of blood (stagnation) or have their blood supply be subtly reduced (deficiency).
Symptoms can include chest pain, pain in the ribs and abdomen, anxiety and depression.
Water metabolism: The spleen, lung and kidney are all important organs that ensure the proper flow of moisture around the body. The kidney is said to seam water up into the upper Jiao, the spleen to transform and transport it from food and drink into the other organs, and the lung to accumulate moisture and then rain it back down to the rest of the body. If the lung becomes physically compressed, moisture can accumulate and build up as phlegm.
Over time, the heat of the body can cook this immobilized phlegm into a hot goo that results in chronic congestion, hot chest pain, cough and anxiety.
Qi transformation: the work of the organs is done around the body by their associated channels, through a process called Qi Hua or Qi transformation. To give one example; the stomach channel carries the hot and drying Qi of the stomach organ up the front of the body to assist with digestion, heat distribution and immune functions.
Cutting down the size of its pathway through the chest can impede its flow, resulting in stomach organ issues like reflux, nausea or vomiting. It can also have implications for our immune systems.
All of the issues that can arise from binding can be treated through acupuncture, herbs, bodywork, and targeted exercise, but their cause is the practice itself. I want to be careful here not to engage in victim-blaming. Many healthcare providers think about this issue and say “yes, my patients should certainly stop binding if it’s causing so many problems!” But that ignores the entire reason that we do it in the first place. Dysphoria is a very real health problem with severe mental health implications.
Binding is often a life-saving act of harm reduction that allows us to life our lives without the constant mental anguish that dysphoria creates.
Surveys of people who bind find that the vast majority of people are doing it while they await the ability to access a surgical solution. Until very recently, top surgery was not covered by insurance and was only available to those who could pay out of pocket. This has begun to change in some states, but remains the case for most people. Therefore we should remember that binding is a self-preserving response to a societally-imposed scarcity of medically-necessary healthcare.
While we engage in the activism needed to change this, here are some harm reduction strategies to consider:
- Stretch it out: engage in stretching poses that open the chest and ribs, for at least five minutes a day
- Build strength: strengthening the muscles of the back and chest may help hold the body of your ribcage in place and protect them from the longterm effects of compression
- Move your body: qi and blood move when we do, and exercise of any kind helps prevent stagnation. Depending on how you bind, running may not be a great plan, but walking is wonderful for both our bodies and our moods.
- Get some acupuncture: we can reduce stagnation and pain by unblocking channels and moving qi and blood in targeted ways
- Take some herbs: chest stagnation and digestive issue in particular respond well to Chinese herbals formulas
- Listen to your body: only you can know what is right for you in terms of when to bind, how to move, and how to balance all of the considerations in your life.
Above all, be gentle with yourself as you navigate the complexities of trans experience. If you want support in your journey, schedule an appointment and let’s see how we can work together.