Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) categorizes arthritis as a blockage in the smooth flow of qi and blood within the energetic pathways in the body. If a blockage forms in a meridian, pain and reduced range of motion can begin. Conditions such as arthritis are therefore called "painful obstruction syndromes" in Chinese medicine, and is commonly treated by acupuncturists.
Because it is an obstruction that affects the bones and joints, arthritis is called "bi syndrome" or "bone bi" in TCM. Bi syndrome manifests as pain, soreness or numbness of muscles, tendons and joints The immediate cause of bi syndromes is environmental - the result of the body being "invaded" by the outside elements; wind, cold, heat and/or dampness. These elements are said to penetrate the body's defenses and lodge in the muscles, tendons and joints.
The symptoms manifested by the individual depend on which external pathogenic factor is strongest. The four main patterns of bi syndrome and their symptoms are described below:
Wind Bi: also known as “wandering bi” because the pain is not fixed, it moves from site to site. Pain is intermittent, it begins and ends rapidly, and there is limited range of motion.
Cold Pattern: also known as "painful bi” because the pain is typically severe and in a fixed location, applying warmth to the affected area helps to relieve the pain.
Damp Pattern: also known as "fixed bi” because the pain has a fixed location. The pain isaccompanied by feelings of heaviness and sometimes numbness and swelling. Pain is aggravated by damp conditions such as humidity.
Heat Pattern: ”hot bi” can result when a wind, cold, or damp-pattern bi syndrome causes a greatly reduced flow of qi and blood through a joint. Such a degree of stagnation causes constraint, which in turn can cause heat. Hence hot bi can develop from any of the above three patterns. It is characterized by severe pain and swollen, inflamed joints. Pain is generally relieved by applying cold to the joints.
Treating Arthritis with Acupuncture
All joint pain occurs on the external aspect of the body, along the acupuncture channels. However, the condition is always accompanied by a deeper, systemic imbalance within the body. In TCM, it is believed that for treatment to be effective, both the manifestation (i.e. joint pain) and the root cause need to be treated. Acupuncture is used to restore harmony to the body, and thereby correct the imbalance. If the systemic imbalance is not too severe and/or the patient is strong, acupuncture may offer a cure. However, if the arthritic process is very deep-rooted, acupuncture may only be able to offer pain relief and help prevent further progression of the disease. In any case, the patient is able to avoid the side effects of western medical treatments.