Treating aches and pains the TCM way

Treating aches and pains the TCM way
Photo: Eu Yan Sang

Most people think of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a treatment for common chronic health problems. However, not many are aware that it is also an effective way of treating pain.

One of the advantages of TCM pain management is its ability to provide rapid pain relief especially in some cases of acute pain. Acupuncture in particular can be very effective in treating pain without any known side effects.

TCM classifies pain into two types: the "excessive" type in which the flow of qi and blood are obstructed by either intrinsic or external factors, and the "deficient" type caused by conditions that exhaust qi and blood.

Excessive-type pain is usually acute, such as in the case of a gout attack where there is intense pain, redness, a warm sensation and swelling. Chronic pain, on the other hand, tends to be a deficient-type condition. An example of this would be dull body aches due to osteoporosis.

A qualified TCM physician can diagnose a patient's condition and prescribe the appropriate treatment.

TCM physician Lee Jin Shun from Eu Yan Sang says: "Finding which type of condition - deficient or excessive - you have is crucial to a TCM physician.

"The physician uses TCM diagnostic principles to assemble the patient's medical history, signs and symptoms and make a diagnosis. This will allow him or her to formulate a treatment plan - such as an oral prescription, acupuncture or cupping - that is customised for the patient."

He stressed that there is no one-size-fits all treatment, and that every patient is unique.

TCM physician Lee Jin Shun ​Photo: Eu Yan Sang

Common painful conditions

TCM physicians commonly see patients with pain in the shoulders, neck and waist. This is largely the result of poor posture, carrying of heavy objects and degeneration. Neck pain is especially common among people who have deskbound jobs and spend a lot of time looking down at their mobile phones.

Another common condition is tenosynovitis in mothers. Also termed "ma ma shou" (literally "mother's hand"), this inflammation of the tendons occurs due to overexertion and is frequently seen in mothers who frequently do a lot of laundry by hand.

How TCM treats pain

In many cases, TCM is able to help with pain management through oral herbal medication, acupuncture, cupping, or a combination of the three.

Oral herbal medication can come in the form of single-dose powder sachets that are mixed with hot water to form a decoction. It is the mainstay of most treatments.

Herbs that help to "promote smooth circulation, reduce swelling and inflammation and to support tissue recovery" may be prescribed for excessive-type conditions, says TCM Physician Lee. Nourishing herbs for deficient-type conditions will help to replenish qi and blood, and in turn help strengthen bones, tendons and ligaments, he adds.

Acupuncture is recognised by the World Health Organisation as an effective treatment for several pain conditions, including knee pain, lower back pain and sciatica. The insertion of hair-like needles into specific acupoints is said to unblock meridians. Through the selection of acupoints and manipulation of the needles, a physician is able to treat both excessive- and deficient-type conditions, says TCM Physician Lee.

Cupping, which was in the news during last year's Olympic Games, is particularly helpful in relieving chronic muscular pains such as back aches. It uses glass cups to create a suction effect on one's skin for several minutes. It promotes circulation of blood and improves the flow of qi. This helps expel the pathogenic evils and treats excessive-type conditions.

TCM physicians may prescribe one or more of these treatments to address a person's pain. When used in tandem, they can work together for greater effect: acupuncture and cupping will unblock the obstructed meridians and allow the herbal medicine to permeate the body.

However, a patient can also request to use or avoid certain therapies. For example, some patients may find medicinal Chinese herbs too bitter, and so may opt for acupuncture instead. In other cases, patients with a fear of needles may choose to rely exclusively on herbal medication. The TCM physician will discuss with the patient to assess which method is most suitable for his condition.

Generally speaking, new and acute pain will take a shorter time to resolve, while chronic pain will take a longer time to treat. However, patients who do not see any degree of improvement may be advised to go for further investigations such as X-rays and MRIs.

Common TCM terms

Acupoints: Points along the meridians found on the surface of the body. When stimulated, they elicit a therapeutic response by regulating the functions of organ systems. 

Blood: Vital materials that nourish the body

Meridians: The network of channels that link up all parts of the body. They serve as pathways for qi activity and blood circulation.

Pathogenic evils: Causative agents that result in diseases, such as

- Wind: Characterised by rapid onset and change with migrating pain

- Cold: Characterised by intense pain which alleviates with heat application

- Fire: Characterised by a warm sensation and redness. It is alleviated with cold application

- Dampness: Characterised by prominent swelling and heaviness

- Qi: Vital force, flow of energy

This article was created in partnership with Eu Yan Sang. It has 23 TCM clinics island-wide and provides various treatment modalities such as acupuncture, cupping, and tui na.

For more information on TCM pain relief, visit Eu Yan Sang.

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