The weather has changed, and maybe you’ve found yourself experiencing an increase in pesky aches and pains in your joints. It may be easy to pass this off as arthritis, which has unfortunately become somewhat of an expectation as we age. The solution to this phenomena is not always an NSAID. You guessed it, acupuncture and herbs can treat arthritis!
Why does it happen?
Arthritis can be explained in Chinese medicine under the umbrella of bi zheng (i.e. bi syndrome) meaning painful obstruction (of the qi and blood). The idea behind bi syndrome is that when the body’s defenses (or wei qi) become weakened (through diet, disease, or overwork, etc), the elements of wind, cold and/or dampness can invade the body and impede flow to the joints, causing obstruction of proper circulation and nourishment. This results in pain.
Depending on your constitution, different patterns of bi syndrome will manifest for you. While there is often more than one pattern involved, a predominance of one more than the others help direct the treatment.
The patterns of painful obstruction
The main pattern involved here is wind so the symptoms typically are: migratory joint pain which is not fixed in location, aggravation of pain with weather (i.e. low pressure systems), and a possible aversion to wind/fans/drafts.
Cold has a tendency to quickly contract tissues and halt nourishment. The pain will often be sharp like a knife, and fixed in location. There also may be spasms and contractions. Pain will be worse with cold exposure, and often relieved with warm baths, hot packs, and warm weather. Consequently, pain is usually better during the day, when the joints are mobile and warmed. Flexion and extension of the joints will often be stiff and compromised.
Dampness is like a wet pair of jeans, heavy and soggy with trapped moisture. Therefore, the pain is often very specific and fixed in location, with soreness, numbness and a heavy quality felt. Pain can be worse with rainy weather, and there can be difficulty flexing and extending the joints. Cold and dampness often happen together, especially during certain times of the year or particular climates (Portland or Seattle are classic examples).
When there’s been stagnation of fluids and qi for an extended period of time, heat arises. A rheumatoid arthritis presentation is a good example of this: joints are hot to the touch, swollen, and red.
At the very heart of it, Chinese Medicine is a preventative medicine. It can successfully treat bi-syndrome once it has manifested with acupuncture and herbs. Yet, there is much we can do to prevent it from worsening or reoccurring. Here are a few basic practices you can implement this time of year to strengthen your guard when the elements are especially strong.
- Stay warm. This means wearing socks/slippers on cold floors, a scarf to protect your neck from breezes, and simply guarding yourself against the elements of cold and damp. It is especially important to keep your lumbar area warm during the winter, as it’s the season of the Kidneys.
- Treat injuries in the acute phase! Even “minor” injuries can become weakened spots that are prone to bi syndrome. Moxa, cupping, acupuncture and herbal formulas are great options to prevent an injury from becoming chronic pain.
- Maintain a real food, nutrient dense diet. Just like your immunity can suffer during periods of eating too much sugar, dairy and other mucus-producing foods, your wei qi will not be strong without a foundation of quality food. Simple and perhaps under-utilized, but still true.
- Minimize or avoid iced beverages and foods. You’re guarding against cold from external sources, so you also don’t want to bypass all defenses by putting it directly into your gut. Instead, enjoy hot beverages that feel oh-so-good during cold temperatures like spiced cider, honey and lemon tea, or best yet, a turmeric toddy (my personal favorite).
- Avoid ice packs or other forms of ice therapy on your muscles and joints. Truly the only time ice can be appropriate and not damaging to the healing of tissues is if the injury is red, hot, and swollen. While ice may “numb” the pain somewhat, it is directly putting cold into the joints and muscles. This contracting quality hinders proper nourishment for healing tissues. Dr. Mirkin (who coined RICE as a standard treatment protocol) has now recognized the limitations of ice therapy and recanted his statements about ice.
- Learn tai chi or qi gong. These time-tested practices are a long-term strategy to build the body’s resources, strengthen wei qi, and enhance blood flow throughout the body, which makes for more suppleness and increased healing capacity.
There is so much power we have in our own health outcomes by consistent self-care. However, if you are suffering from joint pain, and these strategies are not enough, go see your acupuncturist. Here’s to a healthy Winter season and strong, mobile joints!
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, she will be out hiking, cycling, or playing in the water.