“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!
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.