A Chinese Medicine Perspective on Arthritis Pain
Author: Leah Chischilly, D.Ac., L.Ac.
This article is a summary of The Practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Diseases with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs.
“Where there is no movement, there is pain. Where there is pain, there is no movement.”
A quick Google search will give you any number of variations of this quote, likely credited to multiple different sources. I have no idea who said it first, but whatever the origin, it gives great insight into the philosophy of acupuncture as a treatment modality for arthritis or any pain condition.
Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Acupuncture is one component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a vast system of lifestyle medicine that includes interventions such as nutrition, exercise, herbs, and acupuncture. It views health as a balance between Yin and Yang and a continuous flow of Qi (pronounced Chee) through the body. Fully defining the concepts of Qi, Yin and Yang are beyond the scope of this article, but a focus on the big picture is all you need.
Yin and Yang in balance = homeostasis, health. Free-flowing Qi helps keep Yin and Yang in balance.
Painful Obstruction Syndrome
In TCM, conditions like arthritis are called Bi Syndromes or painful obstruction syndromes. As the name implies, the flow of Qi becomes obstructed, and when it persists for long enough, pain and other symptoms appear.
TCM theory suggests that climatic factors give rise to Bi Syndromes. Wind, Heat, Cold, and Dampness are considered pathogenic. Excessive exposure to any of these factors allows them to invade the body and create imbalance. When not promptly addressed, these pathogens can become chronic and lead to an obstruction in the flow of Qi.
Keep in mind that when TCM began, they didn’t know about viruses and bacteria that we have today, so climatic factors were what was observed and used as an explanation for illness and symptoms. If you think about it, it may not be that far-fetched. Ever notice that you get sick right when the weather turns cold? Or that arthritis pain kicks up when it’s rainy? How symptoms respond to different types of weather and how they present helps your Acupuncturist determine the best course of treatment.
What are Bi Syndromes?
Cold Bi – Cold Bi is caused by cold and usually manifests as severe pain in a joint or muscle and decreased mobility. It also often occurs on only one side of the body. If your symptoms worsen when applying cold and improve with heat, you may have a Cold Bi Syndrome.
Damp Bi – Damp Bi is caused by dampness and often manifests as fixed pain accompanied by soreness, swelling, and a feeling of heaviness or numbness. Rainy and/or humid weather may make symptoms worse.
Wind Bi – Wind Bi is also called “wandering” bi syndrome because the pain often moves around from joint to joint.
Heat Bi – Heat Bi is a later stage Bi Syndrome that occurs when other pathogens haven’t been resolved, and the problem becomes more chronic. Heat Bi is often characterized by redness and swelling of the joints that will feel warm to the touch.
Nowadays, we have the luxury of air conditioning and central heating, so excessive exposure to any one climatic factor is unlikely. However, invasion can occur more quickly and become more persistent when the body is weakened. Things like overwork, undernourishment, excessive sugar intake, processed foods, smoking, and consuming alcohol are all things that can weaken the body over time. Genetic factors can also play a role in a person’s susceptibility to Bi Syndrome.
How Acupuncture and TCM Can Help
When treating a patient with Bi Syndrome, an Acupuncturist will treat the “obstruction“ and any underlying imbalance that made the person more susceptible to invasion in the first place.
For example, rheumatoid arthritis, which manifests as warm, swollen, and painful joints, is considered a chronic pathogen (most likely dampness) that persists and turns to heat inside the body. Treatment would involve using acupuncture and/or herbs to help clear heat from the body to address the imbalance caused by the obstruction. It would also include ways to resolve the dampness that caused the obstruction in the first place. Lastly, the practitioner would address any underlying imbalances that may have made the person more susceptible to an invasion.
Acupuncture isn’t a one-and-done type of therapy. It may require several visits to your Acupuncturist before symptoms improve. It is a treatment, however, that comes without side effects and many patients experience improvements in their health in such areas as better sleep, improved digestion, and a greater sense of overall well-being.
- Maciocia, G., & McIntyre, M. (2022). The Practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Diseases with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs. Elsevier.