***For over two hundred years western medical technology has sought to understand the concept and origin of pain. Through advances in the understanding of anatomy and physiology, science has identified the primary source of pain as the human nervous system. We continue to view pain as an irritation to that system caused by external sources such as trauma, inflammation, internal disease, or a failing of the anatomical system. In lieu of the absence of these obvious factors, western science seems unable to fully diagnose or treat pain with any degree of success. Syndromes without apparent allopathic (western) causes such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia, and any conditions manifesting unexplained neurological pain continue to baffle western science.
***Traditional Chinese Medicine has developed a much more sophisticated view of pain and its causes over more than two thousand years of study and treatment, prior to the advent of modern western medical science, as evidenced in ancient classic Chinese medical texts. The theory discussed in these texts enables Traditional Chinese Medicine to effectively treat many of the pain syndromes that are very difficult for western medicine to affect.
Chinese Medicine first categorizes a syndrome, or pain condition. (and the symptoms of it) as being caused by internal or external pathogenic elements (relating to the cause or development of disease). An Internal condition is a condition for which the cause is inside the body. For example conditions caused by lack of nutrition, or a failing of anatomy. An External condition is one caused by outside factors such as environment, Bacteria, Virus etc.
Chinese practitioners will then categorize the pain according to a natural or elemental imbalance. These are usually described as cold, heat, damp, wind, or dryness invading the body. For example a cold pain would be pain that is aggravated by cold and eliminated with heat. A heat type of pain would be one aggravated by heat and soothed with cold. A perfect example of this is inflammatory pain from recent trauma. Pain that moves and changes is considered like Wind. Pain that is Damp is normally aggravated by rainy days. Pain that is dry is aggravated by conditions of dehydration within the body etc.
Chinese medicine also pays close attention to an individuals experience with pain and how they describe it. This is also very important to understand prior to treatment. For Example, is a patient describes a type of pain is severe , stabbing and unrelenting. This indicates an excess condition and will be treated differently that a pain that is described as dull and hollow, which would be treated as a deficient condition. Protocols in Chinese medicine exist for both types, and they would be treated accordingly. This description of pain would largely be ignored by most western practitioners and both types would be treated the same, hindering the recovery of many cases. Western science views a patients interpretation of how the pain feels, not as an indication of root cause, but as the individuals opinion.
To further treat pain it is then categorized as excess or deficient. The Neijing say’s “When cold attacks the channels of the back, causing blood stagnation, the result is anemia. Pain arises as the result of “blood deficiency” in Chinese medical theory. Western medicine has no concept that includes the idea that deficiency can cause pain. The concept of trauma causing stagnation (an excess condition) exists in the idea of inflammation, in Western thought, but the idea that deficiency or anemia could cause pain was never developed in the western paradigm of anatomy and physiology based treatment.
In Chinese medicine pulse diagnosis is also used to determine the root causes of pain. The Neijing says “If one finds this pulse to be strong, full, and vibrant the cause is blood stagnation induced by an external pathogen. However if the pulse is sinking, there is deficiency of qi and blood.” We still use these concepts in treatment today. Western medicine is interested in the pulse rate only, not its qualities, which is Chinese medicine can also determine course of treatment.
A summary of the use of several of these categories from the Neijing is as follows “When a cold condition attacks between the intestines and the stomach, causing the blood and Qi to stagnate, the small collaterals will contract and cause pain.” The text continues by describing how heat is able to disperse this type of cold, and to stop pain. It goes on the describe that massage and heat can ease deficient pain. Moving blood stagnation with cupping (a therapy designed to stimulate the flow of blood and Qi within the muscle layers), or Gua Sha can ease excess pain. This is an excellent example of how Chinese medicine will treat differently based upon the root cause of the pain, not only on the existence of pain, as in Western practice
These examples show us the advanced concept from which the Chinese understood pain; its types – deficient, excess and stagnant, its root cause – cold, and the diagnostic methods to determine this. These concepts were and have continued to be proven true, for over two thousand years prior to modern western science. These diagnostic techniques are still the basis for many of the treatment protocols we use today.
Western science categorizes pain as the result of an irritation to the nervous system or a failure of an anatomical or physiological condition. It is therefore a protection method to let the body know when something is wrong. The patient may define pain as sharp, dull, or aching, however western medicine views this more as the patient’s interpretation of pain, and the level of discomfort, rather than as a diagnostic tool, to evaluate and treat the root cause of the pain itself as we do in Chinese medicine. Perhaps this is why western medicine has ultimately developed only one effective way to treat pain, by using pharmaceutical drugs.
Most western thought is that if the syndrome can not be seen felt, or palpated, it is only present in the mind of the patient. For this reason most pain without a completely obvious cause (in conditions such as Fibromyalgia) are considered a psychological problem, and are often relegated to the realm of psychology, or psychiatry. The TCM paradigm goes beyond this idea and begins to embrace the theory that you must also look to the source of the irritation itself, and the type of pain manifesting at that time to truly understand it. This is one of the reasons that Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture are so effective when treating these types of conditions. Alternative medicine and TCM will hopefully pave the way for better treatment options for individuals suffering with these kinds of pain conditions.