One day as a medical intern during my schooling, a faculty member came in for a treatment for acute pain. He had just rolled his ankle outward, which is the harder and more painful way, and it was swollen almost to the same size as his knee. He wanted to know if I knew how to do acupuncture for acute pain, because he was leaving for a vacation the next day, and wanted relief! I said yes, and did what I considered to be a fairly simple acupuncture treatment to drain heat (inflammation) and move blood. We also applied a poultice of Chinese herbs guided by the same principles.
I've seen countless successes with acupuncture for acute pain since that time as an intern. Classical Chinese medicine, as I have written before, is designed to treat the most common maladies that people experience. However, because of the relatively recent introduction of Chinese medicine to the American system, combined with some structural problems in our healthcare system itself, means that people rarely consider an acupuncturist when they are injured. The way that injuries are approached from a Chinese medicine context is quite different from how they are approached in biomedicine (also called Western medicine).
Biomedicine, let's be clear, is responsible for incredible recoveries – seeming miracles in many cases. For treatment of trauma, and enacting life saving measures in the face of poor prognosis, biomedicine is incredible. However, some have found that full treatment of those injuries to a pain free state, or overall treatment of chronic pain, seems not to be as well developed in this system. Could this be because the approach to acute injuries in biomedicine comes from work in extreme circumstances, such as battlefield medicine & high performance sports contexts?
If you consider this possibility, it does make sense, because people dealing with extreme circumstances tend to innovate and create useful technologies. Many pioneering approaches have come out of battlefield medicine, such as ready-made tourniquets and quick-clot. There is a dark side here, though: both sports and battlefield situations have different aims than regular civilian life. They both require people to be ready to exert themselves again as quickly as possible. This is not the same thing as healing an injury as fully as possible.
In fact, sometimes healing as quickly as possible can impede fullest recovery over the longer term
A simple illustration of this can be seen in the RICE protocol. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. It has long been the standard approach to sprains and strains, and it comes from sports medicine. Icing an injury certainly does cause the swelling to go down. It allows someone to put weight on the joint again sooner, and get back on the field.
After the first day or two however, as the intense heat of swelling recedes, it begins to introduce cold in the site. Cold tends to slow biological activity, and can kill cells. From a perspective in Chinese medicine theory, cold injuries Yang, Qi and blood. In my clinical experience, and that of my teachers, this can lead to instability in the joint as it heals, and increased scar tissue. In extreme cases, it can an acute injury and creates a chronic one. Using acupuncture for acute pain – before it becomes a chronic condition – may be part of the answer!
How do acupuncturists look at acute injuries differently?
We’ll return to sprains in later posts, but for now let’s examine how Chinese medicine theory relates to acute injuries. There are various types of acute injuries, of course: breaks, cuts, punctures, dislocations, crush injuries, and endless variations and combinations of those types. From a CM perspective, what all of these types of injury share is that they cause Qi and blood stagnation. Wait – blood stagnation? You may wonder “how can a bleeding cut or similar be blood STAGNATION?” There's a lot to say about that, but let's summarize by saying that we define blood stagnation as any situation where blood is not flowing properly inside of the vessels. Being outside of the vessel, and pooling between layers of tissue, qualifies.
This becomes more clear if you imagine the process of wound healing with clotting, scabbing over and then scarring. Qi stagnation happens anytime that the body’s abilities to communicate is compromised, even at a cellular level. As cells are destroyed by an injury, dead zones of communication are created.
Stages of injury in Chinese medical theory
Acupuncturists treating acute pain recognize three stages that all acute injuries move through.
- Stage 1: The site of the injury becomes hot and swollen, and dead tissue builds up, which was think of as heat toxins. The body sends Qi and blood to the site to repair the damage.
- Stage 2: Some of the acute heat swelling recedes, and stagnation of Qi and blood due to tissue damage begins to create pockets of cold
- Stage 3: All acute heat and swelling are gone and only stagnation remains, largely as scar tissue, which leaves the area vulnerable to wind and cold becoming trapped.
Our acupuncture for acute pain treatment strategies flow naturally and rationally from these stages of healing.
- Stage 1: We drain heat toxins, stop bleeding and move Qi and blood
- Stage 2: Some draining and moving and some warming methods are used
- Stage 3: Warming and nourishing methods used, some moving Qi and blood but more gently
When treated properly with the above methods, injuries tend to resolve more completely. We accompany the patient through all of the stages of healing, giving them support every step of the way. This leads to a much more stable joint/limb/body cavity, with less scarring and often less pain. Simply put : acupuncture for acute pain helps avoid needing treatment for chronic pain down the road. While acupuncturists absolutely can, and do, treat old injuries – preventing them is much more satisfying.
What you can do on your own for acute injuries
You can always come see me if you get hurt, I specialize in acupuncture for acute pain! But, sometimes treatment isn't feasible – or not feasible soon enough! In that case, here are some take-home strategies for self-treatment!
- Sanhuang San (pronounced Sahn Hwahng Sahn): known as herbal ice, this external herbal formula clears heat and moves Qi and blood, thus reducing swelling and pain. It works with the body to improve circulation, rather than shutting it down. You can mix the powdered herb with any ointment and apply thickly to the site of the injury, like icing on a cake. Do not use on open wounds! You can find the powder here, among other places.
- Warm/cool hydrotherapy: you can improve circulation in and out of the area by alternating warm and cool soaks or washcloths. Shoot for 10 minutes of one and 10 minutes of the other, for no more than an hour at a time. This will help flush toxins out of the area and then assist the body in bringing the circulation back.
- Don’t ice after the first two days! Really, please don’t. Use warm/cool hydrotherapy instead – protect that yang qi!
- Massage out bruises. Be gentle, of course, but from a Chinese medicine theory perspective, bruises are stagnant blood that needs to be broken up – moved. A little goes a long way here!
Use your injured body part gently and stretch. Circulation of Qi and blood is vital to the healing process, and needs to be balanced with rest. Listen to your body as you learn your limits during your healing process.