Fibromyalgia affects everybody differently. Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person and may even change over time. This can make it difficult to diagnose and treat with conventional, western medicine, and many people have a long and frustrating wait before finally finding the root cause of their symptoms.
Fibromyalgia in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is the underlying philosophy behind acupuncture. TCM views the body in a different way. It sees the body and mind as a whole and treats all symptoms as being related to one another. This means that it can be highly effective at diagnosing and treating complex conditions such as fibromyalgia.
In TCM, diseases are classified by what are known as patterns. These patterns are diagnosed by identifying a set of symptoms which fit together, and describe which organ or substance is being affected and how. In fibromyalgia, there are three major patterns which may be involved.
Liver Qi Stagnation
The most common pattern in patients with fibromyalgia is Liver qi stagnation. In TCM, the Liver is responsible for the smooth circulation of qi around the body. This is necessary in order to keep all of the other organs functioning properly, to keep the blood flowing and the muscles moving. If the Liver becomes imbalanced, it cannot circulate qi as it should. This results in disorders of the other organs, pain and stiffness throughout the body.
Liver qi stagnation is a very common pattern in our modern world. It is often caused by stress, or other repressed emotions such as anger or frustration. Poor diet and lack of exercise can also contribute to the development of Liver qi stagnation.
Because the Liver is responsible for the qi circulation of your entire body, when it malfunctions, this can cause symptoms anywhere else in your system. However, one organ which is affected especially badly by Liver qi stagnation is the Spleen. This is because in TCM, the Liver and the Spleen are directly linked. If the Liver becomes stressed, it can begin to attack the Spleen. This is even more likely if your Spleen is already weakened by poor diet, excessive mental work or worry.
The Spleen is one of the major digestive organs in TCM, and when it is under pressure it can cause a wide variety of digestive issues. A weak Spleen can also cause a build up of pathogenic dampness within the body as it fails to transform the fluids from food and drink as it should. This causes cognitive problems such as “fibro-fog” and other symptoms including fatigue and heavy, aching limbs.
In order to keep the relationship between the Liver and Spleen healthy, it is important to soothe the Liver while nourishing the Spleen. This is done by keeping stress levels to a minimum, taking regular exercise and eating a balanced, nutritious diet. Avoid eating too many cold or raw foods which damage the Spleen, and take time out to eat away from your desk and other distractions.
Qi Stagnation and Blood Stasis
An unhappy Liver is one major cause of qi stagnation, but there are a number of other reasons why your qi may stop circulating freely. Additionally, qi is responsible for moving blood, so when it stagnates, blood can stop flowing as it should too.
One reason why qi and blood may stagnate is a pattern of deficiency. Deficient qi or blood means that there is not enough volume to push it through the vessels. This allows it to collect in certain areas resulting in tenderness, pain and stiffness. Qi and blood deficiency can also cause symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia and anxiety.
In order to prevent this deficiency from happening, you need to eat a balanced diet. Sweet foods such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin and honey are good for nourishing qi, but stay away from refined sugars which put an extra strain on your Spleen. The best foods for nourishing blood are those which have a high iron content such as red meat, liver, eggs and leafy greens. It is also important to get enough exercise and enough sleep.
Another reason for qi stagnation and blood stasis is that the vessels can be blocked by external pathogens such as wind, cold and dampness. These can invade your body in the form of viral infections such as colds or flu. If your defences are weak, they can remain in the body, penetrating deeper and deeper, obstructing the flow of qi and blood.
The best way to avoid pathogenic invasions is to dress appropriately in cold or wet weather, paying special attention to covering the upper back and neck which are seen as being prone to wind invasion. Eat well and exercise regularly to keep your immune system functioning effectively, and if you get sick, take enough time to rest and recover properly.
The Kidneys play an important supporting role for all of the other organs and their functions. They are seen as the source of all yin and yang within the body, providing warmth to carry out our biological processes and a cooling system to prevent us from overheating.
If Kidney-yin is deficient, this can have a knock on effect on the Liver and/or the Heart allowing them to get too hot. This causes symptoms such as headaches, irritability, anxiety and insomnia. If Kidney-yang is deficient, the Spleen can become too cold and will be unable to digest food properly. This causes symptoms such as loose stools, frequent urination and fatigue.
If your qi is deficient, this can also stem from a Kidney deficiency, as the Kidneys play a vital role in the formation of qi.
It is important to keep the yin and yang of the Kidneys in harmony. This can be done by finding a good balance between rest and activity, eating the right foods and avoiding smoking, alcohol and caffeine.
Treating Fibromyalgia with Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Acupuncture is well known as an effective treatment for pain. From a TCM perspective, it works by restoring the circulation of qi and therefore blood. From a western medical viewpoint, we know that it affects the central nervous system to reduce pain. It helps to rebalance the levels of certain neurotransmitters within the brain, and triggers the release of endorphins, your body's natural painkillers.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can also bee used to build up qi and blood, remove invading pathogens, soothe the Liver and nourish the Spleen and Kidneys to prevent deficiency.
Diet and lifestyle are very important in managing fibromyalgia symptoms from both a western and a TCM point of view. Regular, gentle exercise is often recommended for fibromyalgia patients and one exercise which may be particularly beneficial is qi gong. This ancient, Chinese practice involves combining slow movements with special breathing techniques. It is great for improving flexibility and balance as well as calming the mind to relieve stress.
Other therapies that your practitioner might recommend include moxibustion, cupping, trigger point acupuncture or massage. The key to treating fibromyalgia successfully is recognizing that each patient has unique needs and addressing them in the most appropriate way. This individualized approach to treatment is what makes acupuncture and TCM such a good option for fibromyalgia.