Monday, July 28, 2014

Cupping and Gua Sha: What are they and what are their benefits?

Cupping and Gua sha have gained some recognition in recent years, mostly when used by celebrities. The tell tale circles on people's backs are caused by the suction of cups against the muscles. But why would anyone do this to themselves? It looks so painful! The good news is that it is not painful and the techniques offer many benefits.

Cupping and Gua sha have many uses. They are most typically used when there is some form of Qi or Blood stagnation, usually indicated by tension, discomfort or pain. The tight neck you get from sitting too long at a computer is a good example of Qi stagnation. There is a Chinese saying, "When there is pain, there is no free flow; when there is free flow, there is no pain." Cupping and Gua sha improve circulation and reestablish proper Blood and Qi flow in muscles that are tight and not moving the way that they should.

Gua sha involves the use of a hard, smooth instrument, often a ceramic spoon (like the one you use at a Chinese restaurant for wonton soup) or a piece of jade. The practitioner scrapes the spoon against the skin along the tight muscles to release the underlying tension and stagnation; it is like getting a very deep massage, very quickly. Wherever there is stagnation, tension or muscle "knots" you will see a bright red/purple mark on the skin (see photo), akin to road rash but without the abrasion. This is an indication that the stagnation has released from the muscles and the Qi and Blood are starting to circulate again. Anywhere that doesn't have stagnation, you will just see light redness on the skin from the friction of the spoon. Usually after Gua sha, the patient has better range of motion and significantly less pain, although there might be some local superficial soreness. Gua sha is a great technique to use on any tight muscles, as long as there isn't any inflammation present.

Traditionally Cupping is done by lighting a cotton ball on fire and inserting it into a glass cup (the fire uses up all of the oxygen inside). Then the cotton is quickly removed and the cup is placed on the body. The lack of oxygen creates a vacuum, sucking the muscle up into the cup. If feels like when a massage therapist grabs your muscle and squeezes it. Today more practitioners use plastic cups (see photo) that come with a suction pump (no fire). I find them easier to use with less fire hazard, and they are just as effective. Cupping is very versatile in its uses. Like Gua sha it can be used for tight muscles, but it can also be used for respiratory problems, like asthma, chest colds or bronchitis, or for digestive problems like bloating, constipation or IBS. These conditions all involve some element of Qi stagnation. With many respiratory conditions, Phlegm is getting stuck in the Lungs and chest causing breathing difficulty; when Phlegm gets stuck, Qi gets stuck. When you can get the Qi flowing again, it is easier to expectorate the Phlegm, the chest and upper back are more relaxed so breathing is easier. With digestive issues, sliding the cups on the abdomen in a clockwise motion can encourage movement in the direction of the natural flow of the intestines to release discomfort and make evacuation a little easier. Cupping tends to be a bit gentler, and the amount of suction can be adjusted as well. Afterward patients look like they were attacked by an octopus, but the relief is immediate.

Cupping and Gua sha can be stand alone treatments or used in conjunction with Acupuncture or Moxibustion. They are very effective techniques and the results are felt right away. The only downside is that they can leave a mark for 3-7 days, so you might want to warn your significant other before you take off your shirt.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What a Pain in the Neck! Natural Remedies for Neck and Upper Back Pain

Upper Back and Neck pain (UBNP) have become very commonplace in modern society. With the amount of sitting (slouching), computer work, driving and looking down (at phones, tablets, etc) that we do, it is not surprising. When the torso is vertical, either standing or sitting, with the head properly aligned over the shoulders, gravity's impact on the musculature is minimal. As the head starts to come forward, from looking down or toward a computer screen or windshield, the upper back and neck muscles have to work much harder to resist gravity's pull on the heavy skull. The more the head comes forward, the more strain there is on the upper back and neck muscles, which can often weaken and begin to hurt over time.

Stress is something else that can cause UBNP. When you experience stress (mental, emotional or physical), the muscles contract; this is one of many physiological responses to stress hormones rising. Very often we contract the muscles of the neck, chest and upper back as if we are bracing ourselves for something: the shoulders raise, tensing the trapezius muscles (the muscles that help us shrug), they may come forward as the pectoral (chest) muscles contract and we might take shallower chest breaths (instead of diaphragmatic or abdominal breaths), which will cause tension in the chest, upper back and neck.

From a Chinese Medicine perspective, stress affects the Liver, which is a Yin organ. It affects the smooth flow of Qi, or energy, in the body. When it doesn't flow smoothly, it stagnates, causing tension and pain. It is similar to the pressure that builds when water is trying to pass through a clogged pipe. The Liver's Yang organ pair is the Gallbladder; when the Liver is stressed, you often see Gallbladder channel pain: headaches on the sides of the head, pain down the sides of the neck into the trapezius muscles, chest tightness, hip tightness, pain down the sides of the legs or knees, IT band (Illiotibial band) pain, etc. The Gallbladder channel starts at the outer eyes, runs over the sides of the head, around the ears and down the sides of the body to the 4th toe. Click here to see the Gallbladder channel.

The first step toward stopping all sorts of UBNP, is to look at your posture. The way you hold yourself and the way you move during your day plays a big part in how your body feels. You may require the assistance of a yoga instructor, physical therapist or someone with a trained eye to see what your specific postural imbalances might be. If your pain is relatively new, adjusting your posture might be enough to get rid of the pain. If it is chronic, you might need some expert help.

One great tip toward keeping you on top of your posture is for the car. Sit upright in the driver's seat with your head back against the head rest. In that position, adjust your rear-view mirror so you can see behind you properly. While you are driving, if you can't see behind you in the rear-view mirror, that is a reminder to sit up straight again.

When you are sitting at your desk working on the computer, make sure that your monitor is at eye level. Sit toward the front of your chair so that your back is not leaning and you can easily place your feet on the ground (knees a little lower than your hips). If you are "vertically challenged" like I am, sometimes a small stool under your feet can help you reach the floor; if your are "vertically blessed" just make sure your chair is high enough to place your hips higher than your knees. Make sure your shoulders are over your hips and your head is over your shoulders. Check in with yourself periodically and make sure you are not shrugging or sinking in your chest. Once an hour (or more often) take a break to do some shoulder and neck stretches:
  • Roll your shoulders back 3-5 times then forward 3-5 times while taking some slow, deep breaths. Make the circles as big as you can, squeezing the shoulders up by your ears and then rolling them back or forward and pressing them down.
  • Let your head fall toward your right shoulder (shoulders should drop toward the floor) and hold for 3 deep breaths, then repeat to the left side. While your head is to one side you can turn your chin toward your collar bone or nod your head to get other parts of your neck to stretch.
  • While sitting up straight, interlace your fingers in front of your chest, then reach your knuckles forward as you pull your chest toward your back so that your upper body looks like a "C". Hold for 3-5 breaths. Then interlace your fingers behind your back and try to reach your knuckles away from your hips as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Try to take some deep breaths and hold 3-5 breaths.

Just like with Lower Back Pain, Upper Back and Neck pain respond very well to Acupuncture, Chinese Herbal medicine, Cupping, Gua Sha and Moxibustion. These techniques help to calm stress, reduce inflammation, move the Qi and relieve pain.

Next month I will go into more detail about Cupping and Gua Sha, what they are, what they do and why they are beneficial. If you would like to receive email reminders about my new posts, click here to sign up; you can unsubscribe at any time.