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Pain Conditions and the Seasons

Can there a relationship between the seasons and pain conditions? An acupuncturist would say “definitely”. Acupuncture is a treatment option within the system of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM ). TCM was developed as a result of close observation of the human body, including the body’s interaction with nature. Originating over 2,000 years ago, one might safely assume that the founders of TCM had a very clear understanding of the effects of the seasons on the body. In modern times, many of us have the option to limit our interaction with the outdoors. We live in climate controlled homes. We commute to school, work or errands in climate controlled vehicles. We can obtain our necessary exercise at indoor gyms, possibly even in heated pools. One might believe that because we control our micro-climate that we are not necessarily connected to or affected by the greater climate. In my acupuncture practice, I find that this is not necessarily true.

This winter (2006-7) we didn’t get our first significant snow and freezing weather until late January. The morning after our first snow (which arrived overnight) I received several calls from prospective patients asking about treatment for sudden exacerbation of pain conditions. Even among my existing pain patients, many came in that week complaining that they had experienced a slight setback in their pain relief.

How does the acupuncturist/herbalist explain this? In TCM we work with “qi”. Many people describe qi as a form of our “energy” or “vital life force”. Within the notion of “qi” running in the meridians and organs of our body, there is also the concept of “righteous qi” and “pathogenic qi”.  Righteous qi is our own healthy qi in its proper location. Liver qi should be in the liver meridian. Kidney qi should be in the kidney meridian. In pain conditions there often exists a situation where pathogenic qi has become trapped or stuck in the meridian. This pathogenic qi is qi that is in an inappropriate place. In TCM, we identify six kinds of pathogenic qi, and the have correlations with the weather and the seasons.  Wind correlates to the Springtime and is also the carrier of other pathogens, for example, the cold draft that gives you a stiff neck. Cold corresponds to winter, summer-heat and fire to mid-summer, dampness to late summer and dryness to autumn.  This pathogenic qi can not only be contracted from the outside environment, but it can also be internally generated from poor diet , stress, overwork or emotional turmoil. Very often internally generated pathogenic qi and externally generated pathogenic qi exist in the body at the same time. Existence of one, often creates a propensity to attract the other.

So how might this relate to how we interact with the weather? Well let’s imagine a person with a chronic low-grade osteoarthritis pain. This individual may show signs of cold, or from another perpective, a lack of warming (“yang”) energy. They may be the type of person who “runs cold”. They may prefer warm drinks and food over cold drinks and raw foods. When their osteo-arthritic joints are not actively and strongly hurting, those joints may feel cold compared to the rest of the body. This is the type of person who will very likely have a sharp increase in pain at the onset of cold weather. Because they have a “cold” pathogen, when the climate becomes cold, it adds to the existing cold pathogenic qi in the channel. This pathogen blocks the healthy flow of qi and creates pain.

My existing “cold-pain” patients are already aware of what I do in this situation. Not only do I treat with needles, but I add forms of heat therapy to the painful joint and related meridians. I use infra-red heat lamps and moxabustion (the burning of specially processed mugwort either on the head of a needle or on or over the skin). Moxabustion (“moxa”) is especially effective at not only drawing out cold pathogens but also improving the circulation of qi and blood and thereby reducing pain.

So does this mean that you should plan on scheduling your acupuncture treatments when the weather is calling for snow? Well, this isn’t a bad idea, especially if you get an increase in your pain with the onset of cold weather. But that’s not all. You should also plan for treatment for the rest of the year, and in cases of cold, especially in the summer. TCM theory recognizes how the body’s energy responds to the changes in season. In the winter, one’s energy retreats deeper into the body. Acupuncturists see this in the typical ‘deep’ pulse of winter. In this state, it is harder to draw cold pathogens out of the body. While treatment in winter can certainly provide pain relief, for preventative care, you will also want to consider maintenance treatment even through warmer weather.

Want more information on your health and how it can be affected by the changing of the seasons? Check back here for more articles, or contact the Feel Good Acupuncture office to discuss your particular health concern.