Q: What is the Chinese Medicine view of arthritis and pain conditions in general?
A: Traditionally speaking, joint pain & arthritic symptoms come under a specific group of diseases known as Bi (“bee”) or “Painful Obstruction” Syndrome. It refers mostly to chronic conditions rather than acute injuries. Biomedical conditions which are closely associated with the Chinese Medicine interpretation of Bi Syndrome include Osteoarthritis (OA), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), frozen shoulder syndrome and any kind of condition which involves stiffness of joints. In extreme cases Bi can also extend to numbness or lumpy masses in the tissue. Essentially in the Chinese medicine view, all pain is caused by blockage.
Q: What is meant by “Obstruction”?
A: The obstruction that causes Bi syndrome can be generated by either excess or deficiency of the organ systems, for instance Qi, Yang, Blood or Yin, or can simply be a blockage of their associated meridians, or pathways that these vital substances use to circulate. Ultimately what it means is that joints become obstructed and painful because one of these things is in Excess (Shi) or the opposite, Deficient (Xu). Whether or not they are Hot or Cold in nature usually depends on symptom origin, and what time of year the symptoms flare up, as well as how intense the pain becomes in following years. Here’s a great article from Science Direct/Elsevier that explains Bi Syndrome as it relates to Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) in greater detail. It covers where Bi syndrome appears in the ancient classics of Chinese medicine – some as old as 2600BCE.
Q: What about the Chinese Medical history of pain treatment?
A: Within this Chinese medical literature spanning back millennia and growing through the ages with input from countless physicians who have built upon pre-existing traditional knowledge and added their own clinical expertise, there are many formulas and combinations for the disease category known as “Bi Syndrome” and its various types. Discussion in the enormous collection of diversely sourced and wide spanning Asian literature relates to both classically built herbal formula recipes as well as the “rhyming couplets” of the poetry that is the alchemical construction of specifically tailored, physician made formulas found with practitioners who utilise the method known as “Dui Yao“. There are of course acupuncture treatments available and these are perhaps more widely publicised, however herbal medicine should definitely not be ignored as a treatment tool for pain conditions.
Is there any supporting research?
Up until around 10 years ago there has been limited good quality research into utilising Chinese herbal medicine for pain relief and treatment of Western medicine categorised diseases such as arthritis and joint deterioration. Since then, however, the quality and volume of evidence has improved and expanded for these, and other common conditions. Part of what informs current research trends is ancient literature, and there is recent documentation in the form of reviews of traditional literature to search for other Chinese herbal substances potentially worthy of research in the treatment of RA. Efficacy is not, however, just about bell-curves, randomised trials, lab testing of ingredients, and mechanism of action. An educated traditional herbalist with pharmacology training understands that it’s also about context, dosage, combination and mode of delivery or application with herbal substances. When it comes to any specific organism, we are similar but because of our DNA, we are all unique, individual beings and therefore require different types of treatment based on these nuances.
Many systematic review and meta-analysis articles analysing available data have been produced in the last 2 decades investigating the efficacy of acupuncture in various types of chronic pain conditions, including but not limited to arthritis. For more info about acupuncture for chronic pain, check out our archived article about the opioid crisis here.
Q: How do we get in touch to chat more about this?
Dr Rebecca Tolhurst (Physician of Chinese Medicine) would be very happy to have a chat with you about your specific situation and what amazing modalities we have to suit your condition.