In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), multiple sclerosis (MS) is known as a type of wei zheng, or “flaccidity syndrome.” The primary symptom of this syndrome is muscle weakness, but in reality, the symptoms of MS are far more varied than this.
Because MS can cause pain, numbness, fatigue, and digestive issues to name just a few symptoms, it is seen as a complex disorder which can occur for a number of different reasons. From a TCM perspective, the organs usually involved are the Spleen, Liver and Kidneys.
In many cases, all three will be affected, leading to a combination of symptoms stemming from each of these individual organs.
Multiple Sclerosis and the Spleen
According to TCM theory, disease can be caused by an unhealthy diet or lifestyle, emotional stress, invasion by external pathogens, or a generally weak constitution.
Because MS is an autoimmune disorder, it is thought that it is often triggered by an infection. In TCM terms, this means invasion by an external pathogen, in this case pathogenic dampness.
Dampness can enter the body if you live in a damp environment, if you are left sitting in damp clothes after being caught in a rain shower, or even if you do not dry yourself properly after taking a shower. It can also be caused internally by a diet which is high in sweet, rich, or fatty foods.
The Spleen is involved in digestion, and is seen as being responsible for transforming the fluids from food and drink into parts which can be used by the body, and parts to be excreted as urine. If you are exposed to dampness from an external source as well as fluids from your diet, your Spleen may not be able to cope. When your Spleen gets swamped with too much fluid, it cannot be transformed effectively and begins to collect within your body.
Accumulation of dampness can cause a range of symptoms including:
- Heavy, aching limbs
- Brain fog
- Loss of appetite
- Loose stools
If your Spleen is struggling for a long time, eventually, it begins to generate heat, much like a food processor motor that overheats when it is worked it too hard. This heat causes the Spleen’s fluids to dry up, leading to yin deficiency. In this situation, any accumulated dampness can become more concentrated and turn into what is known as phlegm.
Phlegm is thick and sticky and causes blockages in the vessels. It prevents the free circulation of qi and blood, leading to stagnation and symptoms such as pain, neurofibromas, and in severe cases, psychological disturbances.
You may be more prone to invasion by dampness and phlegm if your Spleen is already weakened due to a poor diet or your inherited constitution. In this case, the best way to avoid worsening dampness and causing phlegm is to support and nourish your Spleen. This can be done by making some simple dietary changes, as well as with acupuncture and herbal medicine.
Avoid sweet, greasy, fatty foods, and limit your intake of dairy products. Base your meals on whole grains, and eat more fresh vegetables, especially those which have a sweet flavour such as carrots, pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Food should be cooked and never eaten raw or cold. Soups and stews are ideal as your Spleen will not have to work as hard to digest them. Warming spices such as ginger can be helpful, but be careful not to overdo it and introduce too much heat into your system. Drink warm drinks and do not be tempted to add ice, even in the summer.
Multiple Sclerosis and the Liver
In TCM, the Liver is responsible for the sinews and tendons. When the Liver is affected by an external pathogen, the tendons can become tight and tense, leading to stiffness and pain.
Additionally, if the Liver becomes yin deficient, this can cause further problems. Liver-yin deficiency means that there is not enough Liver-yin to counterbalance Liver-yang. Liver-yang can then rise upwards causing symptoms such as dizziness and headaches. Eventually, this situation can lead to the generation of what is known as “Liver-wind agitating within.”
Wind is a condition which is characterized by abnormal movements of the muscles. This can include many of the symptoms of MS such as:
- Tics or tremors
- Stiff muscles
- Unusual movement of the eyes or mouth
These symptoms are more common in the later stages of MS, as the disease becomes more advanced. However, some people do experience Liver-related symptoms earlier in the form of visual disturbances (in TCM, the Liver opens into the eyes).
The Liver may be weakened by long-term emotional stress, especially anger and frustration. This is why it is important to stay calm by practicing relaxation techniques or going for regular acupuncture or massage treatments.
The Liver can also become damaged due to Kidney deficiency, as these two organs are very closely related in TCM.
Multiple Sclerosis and the Kidneys
In the five element cycle of TCM, the Kidneys are governed by water, and the Liver is governed by wood. In nature, water nourishes wood, and so in TCM, the Kidneys nourish the Liver. If the Kidneys become deficient for any reason, this can have a knock-on effect on the Liver, potentially causing the symptoms listed in the previous section.
Most people with MS have a combination of Liver and Kidney deficiency. This can be due to stress, which affects the Liver, or overwork which depletes the Kidneys. If your Kidneys are struggling, you may experience symptoms such as:
- General weakness
- Aching lower back and knees
- Sexual dysfunction
Kidney deficiency often comes from an inherited weakness, but it can also be caused, or worsened, by many different lifestyle factors. Smoking, drinking, and other recreational drugs can all damage the Kidneys. Working too hard without resting enough can have a similar effect. Finally, excessive sexual activity (ejaculation in men and childbirth in women) is thought to deplete the Kidneys, leading to yin deficiency of both this organ and the Liver.
Treating Multiple Sclerosis with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
MS is currently incurable, and notoriously hard to treat with conventional medicine. The aim of treatment is to slow the progression of the disease, manage symptoms, and improve quality of life.
In TCM terms, the most important treatment principles are expelling any pathogens such as dampness and heat, and strengthening the Spleen, Liver and Kidneys. This can be done using a combination of acupuncture and herbal medicine to treat the underlying causes of the disease. Making dietary and lifestyle changes is also important as bad habits can sometimes be a contributing factor to MS symptoms from a TCM perspective.
Acupuncture and other therapies such as tui na massage, trigger point therapy, and cupping can help to manage individual symptoms such as pain and stiffness as they arise. These treatments are also very relaxing, and can help to relieve emotional symptoms like stress and depression.
Treating MS with any type of medicine is a slow process, and it can sometimes feel like you are taking one step forward and two back. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are no different, and you are likely to need several treatments before you notice a major difference. Once you start to see improvements, your provider may suggest that you come for less frequent maintenance treatments to keep your symptoms under control and reduce the chances of a relapse.