Question: I’ve had fibromyalgia for almost five years. I take prescription medicine for my symptoms—burning pain and achiness throughout my body, headaches, fatigue—but lately I’ve been wondering if it would be possible to get relief from a more natural method of treatment. How does TCM view this condition?
Answer: Generally speaking, fibromyalgia is a muscle problem. Sometimes, it also involves the tendon, but it’s generally a soft tissue problem. So it’s not the bone and not the joint that has the problem, it’s the muscle or the tendon. There’s a burning sensation; there’s a constant fighting against pain; and there’s some fatigue. These are some of the main symptoms of fibromyalgia.
According to Chinese medicine, these kinds of pain and symptoms are associated with a Liver function disorder. Generally speaking, you overuse your Liver. The basic idea is that inside, the body’s fluids become dry. It’s almost like water: when you overuse water it can eventually dry up at the source. In the case of fibromyalgia, the overuse of your body’s fluids causes the body to become dry internally. That’s why there’s a burning type of pain.
Chinese medicine theory says the Liver is associated with the tendons—the tendons are controlled by the Liver. This means the health of the tendons is related to the Liver’s health. And the opposite is also true: the condition of the tendon can affect the overall health of the Liver. For example, if you overuse or put excess stress on the tendons it will impact the Liver and its function.
On the physical level, tendons are located between the muscles. Tendons are fibrous connective tissue that connects muscle to bone and other parts of the body. A tendon is much like a rubber band: if you over-pull it thousands of times, and pull it fast, then the tendon eventually loses its strength. That’s one image of how we can damage the Liver from the Chinese medicine perspective.
Some people are constantly exercising. From aerobics, they go running, and then maybe they do something else afterwards. They do this kind of routine every day. And they constantly overuse their bodies—and their tendons—and never allow the Liver to rest. Often, people who have fibromyalgia are very athletic before they get this condition. They constantly exercise and do many different kinds of activities; they are always on the move.
Westerners have a concept of exercise, but they never learn how to nurture, how to heal. They only know how to push. They push the body doing exercise—and in some way, that’s not bad. You can train the body—that’s true. The body can be trained for strength; it has unlimited power. Tapping into unlimited power is one way to train; however, it’s not gained by over-pushing the body.
It’s like a tree: you cannot pull a tree up and still expect it to grow. You have to know how to nurture the tree. You cannot put too much fertilizer on it or you will burn it. You cannot pull the tree or the tree will be dead—the root will be pulled out, right? You can’t give it too much water or the tree will be drowned. You have to know that different kind of trees need a different environment.
That’s why, from ancient times, when you do martial arts training, after training you always learn how to relax the muscle. You have to know how to relax the muscle first; you have to know how to heal the body first. Then you learn how to train. Here, in the West, you never learn that—that part is missing in Western exercise.
Another thing that is unhealthy is that after your stressful job you go to the gym to push. That’s the worst part because after work you have so much emotional and physical stress. Stress already causes a Liver function disorder. Think about it: you are already tired; you are already low in energy. At night you are so tired; however, mentally you think you need to do exercise. So what do you do? You force the body, you push it.
Because the body needs to survive, it will push this way. But where does the energy come from? Many people don’t really think about or understand this. You don’t go to the bank and wire the money from your checking account. You go to your body’s life force—its savings account—and pull the energy out to push your body.
You have to understand that your daily life—with the stress—already causes a function disorder, which means the Liver already is not functioning at the highest level. So your balance is not too good because the Liver controls balance. Balance, sensitivity . . . all of these skills are associated with sports and are connected to the function of the Liver.
So if you push your body when you are stressed and tired . . . yes, the body can do it, but this can cause an injury because your body is not functioning at the best level. And if you push the body, you cause the Liver to have even more stress. After exercising, a lot of people will say, “After exercise I feel a release of stress.” That is true on the mental level, but on the energetic level, the next day you become more stressed because you don’t allow the body to rest, and your Liver becomes more unbalanced.
People do feel relief after exercise—mentally. But the mental level is based on your belief. Your belief only wants to see what you want to see because all this exercise does not try to build up the connections in your body or the connection between your body and nature. It’s to build up the mental image you have of yourself. See, that’s the problem. Instead of trying to build sensitivity and a deeper understanding of your body, you build up your body so when other people look at it they see it as something good. You build up your body for other people, not for yourself. So you lose the sensitivity; you lose the connection; you lose the biofeedback where your body tries to talk to you. That’s the thing. The feeling is lost.
So that’s why you push and push until you reach a certain level when the body cannot function anymore. When the Liver cannot function anymore, it will definitely create pain. It will create the symptoms we call “fibromyalgia.” At the beginning, there starts to be more pain, so you might take Tylenol or a painkiller and continue to exercise because you believe that if you don’t exercise your body won’t look good. You punish the body instead of challenging the mind. We always think the body is wrong, but it’s not. The body tries to tell us, “Hey, I need a rest, I need healing, don’t push!” But we don’t listen. We take a pill and continue to push the body.
In order to heal this kind of situation, Chinese medicine treats the Liver function. Also, fibromyalgia is connected to Kidney function, which is the energy—it’s where your life force or energy is stored. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney is called the “mother” of the Liver, which is the Wood element. The Kidney is the Water element. If you don’t have enough Water to moisten the Wood, the Wood becomes brittle and breaks more easily. The Wood becomes very dry, that’s why there’s so much pain with this condition.
With fibromyalgia, issue number 1 is to save energy, to rest the body, particularly at night. Don’t force yourself after midnight—that causes a Kidney function disorder; that causes the body to develop a moisture disorder. Most people are not aware that the body burns energy at a much higher rate after midnight than it does during the day. Nighttime is when the body is naturally designed to rest; the energy returns to the organs to help nourish and heal them at this time. So first, you have to rest.
Second, acupuncture can help. Acupuncture can help the energy flow, but once you have fibromyalgia symptoms, acupuncture doesn’t help a lot. At this time, you definitely need some herbs to give an additional jump start for healing. Third, avoid spicy foods; they add more heat to the body. Eat more fish and more sweet foods. You might even find you are craving a sweet taste. Try to find a Chinese medicine practitioner in your area to work with you and help you rebuild your body—from the inside out.