Pains all over your body, extreme tiredness, difficulty with concentration and sleep – this combination of symptoms is often due to a condition called polymyalgia. If you are someone who suffers from polymyalgia you may have found that Western medical doctors are a bit puzzled by it and don’t have much treatment to offer. Luckily, Chinese medicine uses different theories to understand and treat this collection of symptoms and by using acupuncture I am often able relieve a lot of the distress. Like most illnesses, it may be triggered by both physical and emotional factors, and treating the ‘whole person’ is very important.
Chinese medicine diagnoses illness in terms of Qi (which may be translated as energy, life-force, or the stuff that makes us alive). The severe muscular pains felt by people with fibromyalgia are usually due to Qi not flowing smoothly round the body, and so I start treatment with some acupuncture needles in points that are especially good for moving Qi. However, there are usually other imbalances that also need to be treated to get to the underlying cause of ‘stuck Qi’. And other weaknesses that relate to all the other symptoms that people may have such as sleeping problems, poor memory, anxiety or depression.
For example, a woman in her late 30’s had developed the symptoms of polymyalgia five years ago soon after the birth of her second child. She had muscular pains that were especially bad in her back. In addition she couldn’t get to sleep at night and then only slept fitfully for a total of about two hours each night. She also had anxiety and panic attacks for which she took medication from her doctor. I started with acupuncture points that helped the Qi to move round the body and her back pain quickly improved after only a few treatments and didn’t recur. However, underlying this and causing her sleep problems was a weakness in her Qi and blood that stemmed from her pregnancies and difficult births. Treatment to strengthen her blood took many more weeks to start improving her sleep but in doing so it also helped her energy levels and feelings of anxiety. In addition to acupuncture I used the herb Moxa, which is especially beneficial for blood. Small cones of dried Moxa are put on the skin over the acupuncture point and burnt slowly and briefly before I take them off again…. a much nicer experience than it sounds! She stopped acupuncture after fifteen treatment sessions because her symptoms had nearly gone. She wasn’t yet ready to try and reduce her medication but she knew she could return if wanted to try this or if something triggered a flare up of the condition.
Moxa as the green herb and dried ready for use
Another patient had muscular pains and exhaustion that were much worse in the winter and were associated with episodes of low mood. She had a muzzy head, which she called ‘brain fog’, and her legs felt very heavy and sluggish. Once again I started with acupuncture to improve the circulation of Qi round the body and her pains improved, but they still got bad on cold wet days and she dreaded the approaching winter. In terms of Chinese medicine, this was because her body and mind were also affected by Cold and Damp. The poor circulation of Qi allowed Cold and Damp to seep into the body from outside, and also affected digestion and the normal warming mechanisms in the body so that Damp and Cold accumulated from inside. In health, Qi is clear and flowing and full of good energy, but where there is Damp it becomes sluggish, heavy, and loses vitality. Acupuncture to clear Damp and warm up the Cold takes a bit of time to work, but gradually her energy returned, her legs felt lighter and her head cleared. She learned to help herself by keeping her feet warm and eating a healthy diet.
Each person who comes to see me with the label of ‘polymyalgia’ has a different personal history and approach to life, and always needs diagnosing and treating as an individual. But for me, the diagnosis of polymyalgia is one that inspires me with hope – once I can get that Qi circulating round smoothly there is no reason not to expect big changes for the better.