acupuncture and chronic fatigue syndrome_full_optBy Sara Calabro

Study findings released last week are intensifying the debate over the relationship between emotions and physical health. The new research found that psychotherapy and exercise can “moderately improve outcomes” for patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

This is a feather in the cap for people who think CFS is a stress-related, psychological condition. It’s a blow to patients who are awaiting confirmation that CFS is viral in nature, potentially treatable with antiretroviral drugs. And it highlights the ever-growing need for therapies like acupuncture, which are premised on the dynamic interplay between emotions and physical health, to become better understood and more accessible.

Why we need to look at chronic fatigue syndrome in a new way

People with CFS often are forced to defend themselves against doctors and others who dismiss their symptoms as psychosomatic. This is infuriating and insulting to people whose quality of life is drastically reduced by CFS.

Yet it points to an obstacle in mainstream medicine that is perpetuated by not just doctors and insurance companies but also patients who suffer from conditions like CFS: There is profound resistance to acknowledging that emotions affect physical health. In many cases, this prevents patients from accessing the therapies that could help them most.

The biomedical model revolves around identifying and isolating cause and effect: If X pathogen invades X anatomical structure, then X medication will rid that structure of the pathogen. Of course, side effects from medications and failure at treating conditions such as CFS have shown that the equation isn’t quite so simple.

Disease cannot be broken down into isolated physical entities, and yet our entire healthcare system—from early-stage clinical trials all the way through insurance claims—is based on the idea that it can.

In contrast, acupuncture considers how the interdependent relationships of anatomical structures and physiological functions are affected by emotions.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a multifaceted, debilitating condition with a misleading name. Patients with CFS are more than just tired. Many of them cannot get out of bed. Other common symptoms include chronic muscle and joint pain, headaches, insomnia, memory problems, swollen lymph nodes, fever, and sore throat.

From an acupuncture perspective, any of these symptoms can stem from a variety of imbalances, both physical and emotional. To develop a diagnosis, the acupuncturist considers whatever information is relayed during the intake, in addition to feeling the pulse, looking at the tongue, feeling the abdomen, and conducting other diagnostic measures.

One acupuncture diagnosis for chronic fatigue syndrome

Acupuncture does not approach CFS as a predefined condition. An acupuncturist could diagnose and treat one patient with CFS completely differently than the next.

Having said that, there are some imbalances that tend to be common among patients experiencing textbook CFS symptoms. One example is Deficient Qi.

Ted Kaptchuk, in The Web That Has No Weaver, says of Deficient Qi, “This is the general designation for patterns of disharmony in the human being, in which Qi is insufficient to perform any of the five Qi functions”—movement, protection, transformation, stability and retention, and warming. Kaptchuk continues, “If Deficient Qi affects the whole person, symptoms might include lethargy and exhaustion….Deficient Qi may also describe a particular organ unable to perform its functions.”

The terminology here is unfamiliar to non-acupuncturists, but essentially, Kaptchuk is saying that Deficient Qi really can affect a person on a number of levels. Pervasive Deficient Qi can cause exhaustion, while Deficient Qi in specific parts of the body can cause symptoms related to a particular system.

For example, a CFS patient with insomnia might have Deficient Qi in the Heart, while someone experiencing muscle pain might be treated for Deficient Spleen Qi. Deficient Qi in any system can be exacerbated by emotional factors such as stress.

Acupuncture address CFS based on each patient’s unique combination of symptoms and emotional influences.

Black-and-white thinking has rendered mainstream medicine generally incompetent when it comes to treating CFS, as well as other chronic conditions that are unexplainable within biomedical parameters (irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia, for example).

Unlike this either-or understanding of disease—either CFS is a psychological condition or it’s a physical one—acupuncture assumes involvement of both psychology and physiology.

There should not be a stigma attached to diseases that have a psychological component, because they all do.

In fact, conditions that are recognized as being influenced by emotions are especially worthy of medical attention and resources. They should be looked to as opportunities to better understand and effectively treat disease.

Increased use of therapies such as acupuncture, which give equal weight to physical and emotional factors, is of vital importance to this evolution.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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