Acupuncture for shingles and post- herpetic neuralgia

Shingles is an extremely painful rash and ‘flu like illness, caused by the chickenpox virus (more details here).  It is due to a re-activation of a previous infection. Most people who have shingles seek advice and treatment from their GP and a course of anti-viral tablets may be effective. However acupuncture also has a lot to offer. When the rash first appears, acupuncture can relieve some of the pain very quickly. More often, I see people who are having continuing pain and illness after the worst of the rash has gone – so-called post-herpetic neuralgia. These ongoing symptoms are difficult to treat by Western medicine such as painkillers but may respond well to a course of acupuncture treatment. I have also found acupuncture helpful for people who continue to get recurrences of shingles long after the acute attack is past.

Traditionally, Chinese medicine understands shingles in terms of the body being invaded by harmful pathogens. It was recognised that this ‘invasion’ could be a re-activation of latent pathogens from an earlier infection.  It did not know these as viruses but described them as Heat, Damp and Wind. These pathogens block the normal circulation of Qi and when Qi is blocked it always causes pain. The Heat is obvious in the hot red rash and often a slight fever, and the Damp shows itself in the pus inside the spots. The sudden arrival of the rash is caused by the Wind.

red flowers for shingles

It is important to treat both the immediate rash and pain and the underlying weakness or imbalance that allowed the pathogens to erupt again.  So when I use acupuncture for shingles I start by helping the body to expel the Heat, Damp and Wind so that the Qi can move smoothly through the channels and the body tissues. Often there is an immediate improvement in symptoms but several treatments may be every few days to turn the corner in improvement. I am more likely to see you after the acute phases has passed but you are still having pain and maybe flare ups of milder rash. I have successfully treated people many months later, and once someone who had had shingle flare ups for several years. At this stage some clearing of Heat and Damp will still be needed but it is also important to consider you as a whole person and understand the underlying imbalances and which systems need strengthening. This constitutional work is a slower job, maybe every week or two for a couple of months or more but has many extra benefits. It is common for the imbalances that cause shingles to flare up are causing other health problems, or a feeling of general tiredness or emotional upset. By strengthening your constitution these other symptoms should improve along with your general feeling of wellbeing. Acupuncture can be used at the same time as Western medical treatment and usually allows people to gradually reduce or stop any shingles related medication.


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Acupuncture for when we are overheated.

As our summer heatwave continues you may be feeling some of the problems with overheating: such as tiredness, irritability, restless sleep, headaches, and poor concentration. When it is the weather that is hot, we can usually find a way of cooling down; but for some people the heat comes from inside their bodies. Then they may experience these symptoms of overheating but not know why, or what to do about it. To work out the cause using Chinese medicine I need to have an all-round understanding of your physical and emotional health – then I can use acupuncture to balance out heat and cold so that you regain your energy.

Acupuncture and heat_berthe_morisot_woman with a fan

Berthe Morrisot: Woman with a fan.

Sometimes, overheating is due to a need to strengthen your Yin energy.  Yin is the cooling, calming, sustaining aspect of Qi (or energy) and can get low due to working hard without proper breaks, or to ongoing stress, or sometimes just getting older. You may feel especially hot at night and may also develop dry eyes or increased anxiety. I use acupuncture to strengthen your Yin and offer advice about how you can keep it strong. When Yin energy is low, it may allow hot Yang energy to rise up to the head. This may cause migraines or outbursts of impatience or anger – a classic case of getting ‘hot under the collar’ or ‘hot headed’ or a ‘blazing temper’. Women are especially liable to this rising Yang just before their periods. Acupuncture treatment then has to bring the Yang energy down before strengthening up the Yin.

However, the body can also generate heat when Qi is strong.  For example, internal heat is generated if physical or emotional upsets have blocked the free flow of Qi. This is especially likely if you are getting frustrated, resentful or impatient with some aspect of life. It may give rise to obvious heat but may also be experienced as a red skin rash, indigestion, cystitis type symptoms, or hot painful joints such as gout. It may be most noticeable at the emotional level with anxiety, restlessness, sleep problems, poor concentration or irritation. In these instances, heat may not be the only cause and it may take time for acupuncture treatment to rebalance the body on several levels.

Just to keep it really complicated, it is not uncommon for people to feel both hot and cold! Maybe you feel cold deep inside and cold feet, but hot at night or when stressed. When winter comes, I will write more about feeling cold and how Chinese medicine makes sense of that and how acupuncture treats it. meanwhile, if you have some cool feelings inside you – enjoy the heatwave!





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Acupuncture for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome means different things to different people. You may have a lot of pain, bloating and wind and/or constipation or diarrhoea, or both. Maybe you sometimes have a very urgent need to go to the toilet- something that can lead to a lot of anxiety when travelling or in social situations. Maybe your symptoms keep you awake at night, or maybe they are worse after food, or cause you a lot of nausea. Almost certainly you find that stress, worry or fatigue will make your symptoms worse.  However it affects you, acupuncture can be a very effective treatment.

painting ancient meal

In terms of Chinese medicine, these problems are due to Qi (our energy or life-force) not flowing freely round the body. When Qi flow to the digestive system is too slow or is temporarily blocked it causes pain and interferes with the smooth functioning of the stomach and/or bowel. Then the bowel may get full of wind, and/or the food may be moved through too quickly or too slowly. Qi may also have periods when it is not moving in the right direction so that, for example, stomach acid or wind tends to come upwards towards the mouth instead of flowing normally down the digestive tract. So I often start acupuncture treatment using acupuncture points that promote smooth movement of Qi. Encouraging gentle exercise to move the Qi may also be important.

In order to make the improvement long-term, it is also necessary for me to work with you to understand what the underlying causes are for this Qi imbalance. Qi may not be flowing smoothly because it is not vigorous enough, in which case I use acupuncture to strengthen it. Or it may be held up by strong emotions, especially if these are difficult to express. This is why irritable bowel symptoms are so susceptible to stress, worry, overwork, or anger and frustration. In this situation, acupuncture treatment can help to free up these emotions and give you space to find your own ways of coping and perhaps longer term plans for a more balanced and fulfilling life.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a Western medicine label that may be reassuring, but does not often lead to effective treatment. Many patients I see come for another reason, but then describe how they are living with what are really very difficult bowel symptoms. Fortunately, improving the flow and strength of Qi with acupuncture is usually very helpful for people with irritable bowel and can be included in treatment plans for a variety of other problems.

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Acupuncture in pregnancy

Pregnancy can be a wonderful time, full of energy and joy, but sometimes problems threaten to spoil the full enjoyment of the event. Maybe everyone else is celebrating your pregnancy but morning sickness is making you feel like death warmed up. Or you are low and tired due to anaemia and the iron pills cause you constipation. Or headaches mount up and you don’t want to take your normal painkillers. Or everything has been great and then you go way past your due date and there is no sign of going into labour. These are all circumstances where acupuncture is a safe and gentle treatment that can make a difference.


Pregnancy causes rapid changes to the flow of Qi and Blood. The menstrual cycle and regular periods  stop and Qi and Blood are diverted to support the growth and development of the foetus. This change in circulation has knock on effects elsewhere, especially on the flow of Stomach Qi. Stomach Qi usually flows downwards but a reversal of this flow, so called ‘rebellious Qi’, causes symptoms of heartburn, nausea or sickness. Acupuncture can restore the downward movement of Stomach Qi and relieve symptoms, but treatment may be needed every few days for a few weeks. In addition, acupuncture treatment will need to be adapted to each individual as there may be other imbalances contributing to the problem.

Anaemia is very common in women because of the regular monthly blood loss of periods and additional blood is needed in pregnancy to nourish the growing baby. Eating the right foods and getting plenty of rest help the body to make blood, but sometimes it needs a hand. Chinese medicine recognises the importance of blood but has a broader and somewhat different understanding of the strength and function of Blood (the capital letter indicates the Chinese medicine concept). There are particular acupuncture points that are effective in strengthening Blood, especially when acupuncture needling is combined with the herb Moxa. When it is burnt, Moxa is very nourishing to Blood and so before needling  I may burn tiny cones of Moxa over the acupuncture points – don’t worry, it is much more pleasant than it sounds! Chinese medicine always considers emotional as well as physical causes, and stress, sadness or grief can all weaken our Blood. So as well as directly stimulating the body to make more or better Blood, acupuncture treatment would include talking about and treating any emotional upset or stress.

Sometimes, that baby is just too happy in the womb and doesn’t seem to want to come out! If all is well but you are overdue, then acupuncture is a very safe and pleasant way of encouraging labour to start. Some acupuncture points have the effect of moving Qi and Blood. These points are avoided during pregnancy but they can very usefully stimulate the womb to be more active when the time is right. In this situation I would insert the needles into points on the shoulder, hands and feet leave them in for about 20 minutes. Ideally, the treatment should be repeated every day. In between this acupuncture treatment you and your partner can use acupressure on the points a few times a day.

As always with acupuncture, the treatment can go on alongside other medical care – indeed in this circumstance your midwife’s care and advice is extremely important. And don’t forget acupuncture after the birth too – it can be very helpful in establishing breastfeeding and in recovering your physical and emotional strength and resilience.

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Relieving facial pain, sinusitis, tension and so much more : the acupuncture point ‘Hegu’

Each acupuncture point has a whole range of different effects. This is one reason why acupuncture can treat a number of conditions at once and can be personalised to each individual. So it is not a question of choosing one acupuncture point for a particular health problem, in the way that a Western medicine drug is designed to treat one problem. Instead, I choose a collection of points that will work together to address the important, or underlying, problems. Everything you tell me about yourself, both the physical and emotional aspects, is important. Taken together, they inform my short term and long term treatment plans and point selection.

Take for example an acupuncture point on the hand which has the Chinese name of ‘Hegu’.


Each acupuncture point is on a specific channel or meridian and Hegu is the 4th point on the acupuncture meridian that is labelled Large Intestine. Confusingly, this does not really relate to the length of bowel that Western medicine calls ‘large intestine’ . In Chinese medicine, Hegu has much more to do with our respiratory system and its meridian travels up the arm to the face, especially the nose. So I often combine it with other points to treat face and sinus problems – in China it is said to ‘benefit the face’. But Hegu is also good for moving Qi more generally. I often use it in conjunction with a point on the foot to encourage Qi to move more smoothly round the body, to treat muscle tension and relax the mind – a combination that is called ‘four gates’.  Its action of moving Qi also makes it good at expelling things from the body – including babies when we use it to induce labour! More commonly I use it to get rid of Wind (linked to coughing and sneezing) and to get rid of Heat.

At an even more fundamental level, Hegu is a key point for strengthening the Metal element. Metal is one of the Five Elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood) that influence your constitutional energy (i.e. the make-up you are born with). We all have the five elements inside us and need them to be in balance. If Metal is the element that is most defines your constitution and health, then treating Hegu, with its paired point, Lung 9, is a key way of rebalancing and strengthening your system. Metal links to the season of autumn and to the respiratory system and lung, so tonifying Hegu and the other points on the Metal meridian is especially important at this time of year.

There are over 360 acupuncture points, all with a variety of possible uses. So we are never short of choice! More commonly it can be difficult to keep the treatment simple – a treatment that uses fewer points and is focused on your constitutional Element can often be the best of all. A long-term aim of acupuncture treatment is to help you find your ‘authentic self’ and to find a way to a fulfilling life. Hegu is, above all, an important part of this.


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