I’m happy to feature a guest post today from my brilliant acupuncturist, Charles Yarborough. I started acupuncture several months ago, and have found it to be very helpful in treating the symptoms that come along with having Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune complications. In particular, acupuncture has helped tremendously with my energy levels and migraine pain (and other pain associated with Crohn’s and fibromyalgia). Fortunately, Charles has kindly offered to share with us some of his expertise about Chinese medicine and Crohn’s disease.
Please note that I personally haven’t yet fully experimented with herbal side of Chinese medicine because of my immune-related sensitivities. Charles approaches my treatment with extra caution because of the complexity of my condition. Be sure to communicate thoroughly with your acupuncturist or Chinese medicine doctor so he or she can proceed cautiously, particularly if you have autoimmune disease (since autoimmune disease may make you extra sensitive to certain immune stimulants). A good practitioner will be able to create an effective and balanced treatment with your unique circumstances in mind.
Chinese medicine sees disease in a way that’s different from what you’re probably used to. While you may simply say you’ve got a cold, the Chinese medicine practitioner will then ask, “Is it a wind-cold or wind-heat, and which of the three immunologic levels has it settled in?” More complicated medical conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, show even more clearly the difference between Eastern/Western approaches.
If you’ve been following Adventures of a Sick Chick, you probably know that Crohn’s disease is a condition that challenges you every minute of the day. It isn’t pretty. There’s often a continual, unpleasant feeling of fullness in the lower stomach and intestines, along with possible obstruction and constipation and vomiting. There may be a mass in the stomach that can be felt with your hand. And to make it worse, the sufferer often will experience diarrhea, fever, cramps, arthritic aches and skin rashes. Maintaining a normal life is a huge challenge.
When the Crohn’s sufferer comes to the acupuncturist, it’s usually after all the standard remedies have been tried. He or she may have endured antibiotics, corticosteroids, antidiarrheal and immune-suppressant drugs. Maybe even surgery. This patient is ready to try something radically different.
The Traditional Chinese Approach
Chinese medicine heralds from an ancient, pre-scientific tradition that uses images of nature to describe medical conditions (and uses plants and animals to remedy them). And so we’re likely to see Crohn’s disease described in one or more of these ways: qi/blood stagnation; large intestine damp heat; spleen/stomach damp heat syndrome, and kidney/spleen deficiency. Here are some examples of how those images play out in the clinic:
This represents the most severe phase of Crohn’s disease, with profound abdominal pain and fullness as well as a painful, palpable mass in the lower right abdomen. Overpowering fatigue as well as well as loss of appetite and chronic diarrhea are likely to appear. The most consistent element we see in this syndrome is pain of all kinds; in the Chinese medicine view, the stagnation of Qi and blood will always result in pain. For this syndrome, herbs would be prescribed to move Qi and blood, and acupuncture would reinforce that goal.
Large intestine damp heat:
Symptoms will include painful, burning and urgent diarrhea; odorous stools; yellow, cloudy urine; mucous and blood in the stool, an abiding thirst for cool drinks. Specific herbs would be prescribed to resolve damp heat in the intestines, however these symptoms are stubborn and will require concerted effort.
Spleen/stomach damp heat:
This syndrome is characterized by a profound, unresolved feeling of fullness in the stomach and abdomen along with the loss of appetite. A dull headache and low-grade fever will often also appear. Traditional herbal formulas can be very helpful, and as with all formulas, they can be modified according to each patient’s constitution and the severity of symptoms.
There may be early morning diarrhea (the kidney is thought to be weakest at 5-7 a.m.) and chronic fatigue with poor memory and focus. Also common is cold hands and feet and a constant feeling of chilliness. Herbs can be prescribed to support kidney function; however, care has to be taken not to give powerfully warming herbs if the patient has an additional “heat” condition. Acupuncture with moxa (burning Chinese herbs) may provide an immediate feeling of warmth and energy.
As you might imagine, herbal formulas must accommodate multiple syndromes within each patient. If the patient is also taking prescription medications, the possibility of herb interaction must also be considered. Many Crohn’s sufferers have found that, by blending Western and Eastern medicine, they are able to reduce the symptoms of this difficult and life-altering disease.
Charles Yarborough, L.Ac. practices acupuncture at Eastview Wellness Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.