How does Chinese Herbal Medicine treat pain?
Herbal medicine isn’t the first thing people think of when pain strikes, with the possible exception of frantically rubbing dockleaf on a nettle sting. Generally people will first reach for acupuncture or some kind of physical therapy. However herbal medicine serves a vital and irreplaceable role in the treatment of pain. To understand this role we need to understand two fundamental principles of Chinese medicine; the concept of the holism and the concept of Deficiency and Excess.
The holism refers to the interconnectedness of the systems of the body. Because every part of our body works in connection with every other part a problem in one area can eventually affect any other (like a delay on the London underground affecting all other trains). Much of Chinese medicine’s effectiveness at treating complex conditions is due to its focus on treating the systems of the body as a whole. For example, many therapies understand that pain can ‘travel’. A knee injury can affect someone’s gait eventually causing them to develop lumbar pain or sciatica. Chinese medicine takes this concept far further, tracking these changes not just through their effects on the physical body but also on organ systems and even the mental emotional level (like a delay on the London underground causing an overstressed marketing executive to have a very public nervous breakdown).
What this means for treatment is that an acute injury is often effectively addressed just by working on the site of pain because it hasn’t had time to disrupt the whole system yet. However as time goes on the pain affects multiple systems and at this stage treating the site of pain alone is rarely sufficient. We need to start considering the person as a whole.
There are literally dozens of different analytical models Chinese medicine practitioners use to diagnose and prescribe treatment but one that is particularly important to herbal medicine is the concept of Deficiency and Excess. As the pain persists and its effect spreads throughout the body different systems will respond in different ways. We may see heat, inflammation and swelling which are signs of Excess. We may also see fatigue, muscle atrophy and dizziness, which are signs of Deficiency. Excess systems need to be Reduced and Deficient systems need to be Strengthened and while many treatments are quite good at Reducing Excess, herbal medicine is indispensable in Strengthening Deficiency.
Simply speaking, herbal medicine gives your body more resources to draw on. Acupuncture and physical therapies work by encouraging your body to heal itself. However if the resources of your body are diminished, either through the wearing effect of chronic pain or other factors, these treatments become less effective and more draining. Herbal medicine adds fuel to the fire while also stoking it. I think the best possible example I could give involves a physical therapist whom I often work in conjunction with. Every once in a while I get a call from her saying she has an ‘Anthony Patient’ for me. An ‘Anthony Patient’ is someone who is not responding to her treatments the way they should. They might be elderly and very frail, they may have recently been through a traumatic experience like a difficult labour or a car accident, they may be someone dealing with severe challenges in their personal life which are taking a great mental toll. The physical therapist will cheerfully ask me to, ‘do that weird herbal stuff’ for them.
This physical therapist has never studied Chinese medicine and has no idea of the concept of Deficiency and Excess but has still, through her own extensive clinical experience, been able to identify patients that fall into the Deficient category and need herbs (weird or otherwise). After herbal treatment sometimes these patients return to the therapist and suddenly the same treatments that were not working before are now effective because their body has more resources to draw on. Alternatively many of them are completely fixed by the herbs alone.
Let me give you an example of a recent patient she referred, a 19 year old office worker.
This young man had a host of issues that he and previous therapists believed were related to severe muscular tension in his left shoulder and up the left side of his neck. He presented with nausea, insomnia, anxiety, sensitivity to light, sinus issues and pain but his primary concern was dizziness on moving his head which was drastically reducing his quality of life. I initially focused on giving a general treatment which alleviated his pain, nausea and improved his sleep but had no effect on his dizziness.
His muscular tension was genuinely staggering and a clear sign of an Excess symptom. However while using tongue and pulse diagnosis to examine him I found he had serious indications of Deficiency. Concluding that if this were merely a simple Excess condition he would have responded better to other treatments I decided to use herbal medicine to focus a little more on his underlying presentation. He was given a combination of herbs to treat dizziness and strengthen Deficiency. After one week he reported his dizziness was substantially reduced as well as the muscular tension. After several weeks of herbs he was well enough to cease treatment.
I’ve been speaking about Deficiency as something that comes after pain develops but of course none of us are in perfect health and acute issues often occur against a background of chronic ones. This can lead to a situation where a patient’s pain persistently returns after treatment. This is because the underlying Deficiency has not been addressed. Again, herbal medicine is the best solution for this and can lead to patients finally being free of issues that have plagued them for years.
This is merely one of Chinese herbal medicine’s strengths when treating pain. We haven’t yet talked about the fact that it can be personalised for each patient depending on their individual needs, taken daily or that formulas can treat multiple conditions simultaneously. While many people often think of physical solutions for so called ‘physical’ problems the effectiveness of herbal medicine in treating particularly complex conditions is proof that it has irreplaceable value in treating pain.