The Northeast United States has seen record amounts of snowfall this year in a relatively short period of time. With snow fall, comes snow removal, usually in the form of shoveling, snow blowing and roof raking. With so much snow falling so quickly, I'm seeing a lot of shoveling related injuries walking through my doors. The repetitive movements combined with very little rest between storms is the perfect way for Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) to set in. Shoulder and neck pain from roof raking, as well as elbow and lower back pain from shoveling have been the most common. Here comes acupuncture to the rescue!
RSI usually occurs from doing inefficient movements over and over with poor or imbalanced alignment--overworking some muscles while under utilizing others. Movements like shoveling, using a computer mouse, the twisting movements that a mechanic uses would be fine in small doses, but when you are shoveling 3 feet of snow or fixing cars for a living, the repetitive movements can add up to significant irritation in the tendons and joints. There might also be contributing dietary factors, like eating a lot of sugar, artificial sweeteners, wheat/gluten or unknown food allergens that are contributing to inflammation in the body, leaving you susceptible to repetitive strain injuries.
In Chinese medicine, pain is seen as stagnation, where the energy (Qi) stops flowing the way that it should. Imagine a clog in a drain: when the water tries to push through the clog and it can't, pressure builds up (pain). Acupuncture essentially removes the clog (stagnation) and allows the water (Qi) to flow freely once again. When the pressure is released and free flow is once again restored, the pain goes away. Often times with RSI there is the added element of heat, where the joint or muscles feel hot and irritated, almost "angry." That is akin to heat building up from friction. If you press the gas pedal in a car while the emergency brake is on, it creates friction (heat). When you release the brake and the car can move forward, the heat dissipates. In the body, when the free flow is restored, the heat dissipates. Even though common sense would say to treat heat with cold, I advise against using ice with these injuries as there are many studies and articles recently that show how ice slows the healing process by impeding blood flow (which will cause more stagnation and pain), and preventing the healing nutrients from the blood to get to the injured area. Chinese medicine always avoids ice (even in food and drink) since cold contracts and causes stagnation.
Another related concept in Chinese medicine is that of the Root and Branch: the Branch is the symptom(s) you are feeling (in this case the localized pain) and the Root is the actual source of the pain. While the repetitive movement brought on the pain in the location that you feel it, the Root of the pain might actually be found in a different part of the body. The pain is usually located in the "weak link" or the joint that is least stable, whereas the problem might be coming from a lack of movement higher up in the chain, typically closer to the torso. Meridians, or channels through which the Qi flows, can have blockages anywhere, so elbow pain might be coming from stagnation that starts in the shoulder or neck along the Large Intestine meridian (for example). Treating the source of the pain rather than just the "branch" can make a huge difference in pain resolution. This is the beauty of holistic medicine.
Through stimulation from acupuncture needles and/or moxa, blood and Qi flow is restored, tight muscles loosen and pain and inflammation resolve. Acute pain heals much faster than chronic pain, so the sooner you get in for treatment, the more quickly your condition will heal.
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