Pain Management in Older Adults

older adult on bicycle

Chronic pain is the number one reason seniors visit an acupuncturist. As many patients age, pain management becomes a daily consideration. Years of wear and tear on knees, shoulders, hips, and feet can show up later in life, limiting patients’ mobility, interfering with sleep, and greatly impacting their quality of life.

Acupuncture is an ideal pain management approach for seniors because it is drug-free, easy to implement, and relatively low-cost.

But why is pain such a common complaint in older adults? As we age, our bodies tend to become less flexible. The blood and fluid necessary to keep our joints and muscles supple decreases naturally with age, both because we are not extracting as much nutrition from our food and because our hormone levels change. Much of the energy required for daily function gets used up by the organs, leaving the limbs weak, stiff, and painful.

The body is a contained network of blood, fluid, and nutrients moving through our muscles, organs, and bones. Exercise assists the body in flushing waste products from the system and bringing fresh oxygen to the limbs and brain. Like exercise, acupuncture creates movement in the body, which is particularly helpful for seniors who have a hard time being active.

When we stop moving our limbs, the heart, lungs, and blood vessels are forced to pump the circulatory system without added assistance, which can be quite difficult depending on the health of these organs as we age. Lack of movement also causes joints and muscles to stiffen, making it harder for blood and fluids to pass, adding to sensations of pain.

Acupuncture needles create movement in the circuitry of the body by tapping into the meridian system, a network of invisible electrical impulses that precede the creation of blood, bones, lymph, and organs. This system of impulses connects all parts of the body in a web. It is the explanation for why an acupuncturist can insert a needle in the hand to ease back pain and why a point on the back of the calf can help with hemorrhoids.

Use of the meridian system is also a major distinction between acupuncture and what is referred to as “dry needling.” Dry needling is a technique that uses acupuncture needles to break up stagnation in a muscle, but this technique does not make use of the meridian system. An acupuncturist’s knowledge of the meridian system offers her many different ways of treating a patient’s pain. For example, just because a patient has pain in her shoulder does not mean we are limited to only needling the shoulder. The meridian system can relay a message to the shoulder through stimulation in other parts of the body.

The meridian system is self-regulating in the sense that its natural inclination is toward health and wellbeing. You are biologically “wired” for health. However, influences like diet, lifestyle, emotional difficulties, and sleep patterns can disrupt the smooth flow of the meridian system. Since the circuitry of the meridian system comes before the blood and lymph networks, it is important to treat the root cause of pain, which actually starts on the level of the meridians.

The meridian system, along with the blood, muscles, bones, and cartilage, can take on unhealthy patterns as a response to physical trauma, such as breaking a hip, overusing the knees, or wearing shoes with poor support. I often look at pain as the body having adopted a “habit” of organizing itself in a particular way around a trauma as a means of protection. Acupuncture helps disrupt this response.

In a way, we can consider acupuncture passive exercise for the meridian system. By encouraging the body to redirect its energy in a healthy pattern, those knots of pain can gradually unravel. Chronic pain is not always easy to alter, but by giving the body a consistent message through acupuncture, we can often make a big impact on very stubborn problems, all without the use of medication.

Pain management is an important consideration in aging. Because exercise is not always a realistic way to work out stiff bones and muscles—especially if a patient is in a wheelchair or recovering from surgery—acupuncture should be considered in senior pain management plans. It is a simple adjunct therapy that can make a significant difference in a senior’s daily life, enabling them to enjoy the things they used to love or discover new joys in their later years.

Is Your Environment Making You Sick? Part III

damp environment

This series has covered the dangers of environmental wind and cold, but what about dampness?

In Colorado we don’t often consider the health impacts of a damp environment. After all, when we are blessed by a summer rainstorm, the water on the sidewalks typically evaporates within twenty minutes of the storm’s passing. Our environment is naturally hot and dry, but your indoor environment may be much wetter than you imagine.

Damp environments, whether hot or cold, can impact your body tremendously. Whether the dampness is coming from a leaking pipe or the natural dampness of a basement, wet environments cause their own set of health problems. Dampness, with its heavy, immovable quality, is the perfect conduit for heat and cold. When you have both cold and damp, or hot and damp, you may experience double the difficulty.

Fuzzy-headedness, stuffy noses, headaches, and musculoskeletal aches and pains are common ailments associated with damp environments. If dampness is not properly vented, it hangs in the air, potentially leading to an overgrowth of mold. Mold impacts the lungs and can irritate the skin as well. This kind of thick air also traps other pathogens, like dust, pollen, and pet dander.

Controlling damp environments requires vigilance. Using a dehumidifier in the basement is a good idea, and looking for ways to naturally open the space, either through a window or a fan system, may help. Dampness responds well to circulation, but because it is such a heavy substance, it requires a bit of artificial “lifting” through human measures.

If you are living in a damp environment, it is important to not compound the impact by creating a damp environment in your body. Ways to control dampness, whether hot or cold, are to avoid sugar, alcohol, dairy, refined grains, and processed food. Make sure you get plenty of exercise in fresh air, which will help you transform systemic dampness.

Living indoors often causes us to forget the affect climactic factors can have on our health. If you think your environment is causing you to feel sick, take this insight seriously. No matter what you put in your body, or how much exercise you get, living or working in an environment that makes you ill has a profound impact on your ability to gain traction in your recovery.

If you have questions about your constitutional climate, schedule an appointment with us to see if acupuncture and herbs might be able to help you optimize your environment for better health.

Is Your Environment Making You Sick? Part II

snow man

In Part I of this series on environmental illnesses, we looked at the impact artificial wind, in the form of fans and air conditioning, can have on the body. This time, we’ll focus on cold and your immune function.

In Colorado, we have highly fluctuating weather. We inevitably have a streak of warm, sunny days in winter, and people often respond to these sudden bursts of springtime by wearing shorts and sandals outside. No matter what the daytime temperatures reach in February, we can be sure it will be very cold once the sun goes down. As much as we enjoy the psychological respite from winter on those rare warm days, temperature fluctuations are difficult on the body, mostly because we don’t remember what season we’re in.

Your body becomes biologically attuned to your outside environment. If you live in a temperate climate, your body will adjust to having four seasons; if you live in a warm, damp climate, you can be sure your body will accommodate the constant pressures of that environment. Because we create artificial living and working environments within the larger context of an ecological climate, we are exposed to many microclimates on a daily basis. Think of your warm bed, your hot shower, your cold air conditioning, your frigid office, and the comfort of your bathrobe. Your body moves between environments constantly—and your immune system needs to be strong enough to manage the demands of these spaces.

Drafts and cold air make the immune system work overtime. Biologically, we are not built for cold. All of our metabolic systems require warmth to function properly. If you already run cold, forced air conditioning, high-power fans, and ice water are very hard on your system. The outside temperature steals that much-needed warmth, and your body has to work harder to protect itself.

A few ways to keep the cold from robbing you include wearing socks or slippers when walking on tile floors, keeping a scarf nearby if you are in a cold office, covering your ankles, drinking warm tea and eating warm, cooked foods, and not getting cold at night. All of this seems like common sense, but I cannot tell you how many patients I know who will sit at their desks for an hour, freezing, before they’ll stop working to grab a sweater!

If you run cold, consider how important it is to make sure that whichever microclimate you find yourself in, you remember your underlying condition. Don’t be afraid to wrap up, bump the air conditioner up a few degrees, or wear boots a little later into the spring. Your immune system will thank you.

Next time, what to do about living in damp environments.

Is Your Environment Making You Sick? Part I

windy environment

Environmental irritants are a common source of illness. Whether you are living in a home with black mold, or sitting beneath a dirty air filter at work, your environment plays a role in your health. While we may know to limit our use of caustic cleaning materials and change our vacuum bags regularly, there are other ways your environment may be making you sick.

Indoor environments have their own weather systems. Because we live in the modern era, we can easily control the temperature of our home, office, and car. If we run hot, we will blast the air conditioner. If we are always frigid, we’ll carry a cardigan or a shawl with us everywhere we go, even into a grocery store in the summer.

Indoor weather patterns have a big impact on our health. Let’s take the example of the air conditioner being set to “high.” For some people, cool air is exactly what they need to recover from blistering temperatures outdoors. If the person works outside, they may crave the cool comfort of central air because it is the only respite they get from the heat each day. Totally normal, right?

Here is where air conditioning can become a problem. Sitting beneath an air conditioning duct or sleeping with a fan blowing directly on your skin creates a “windy” environment in your home and in your body. When humans are exposed to wind, this environmental factor can enter the skin and cause havoc. Bell’s palsy, a condition marked by a sudden drooping of the face, is a pathology of unknown origin in Western medicine. In Chinese medicine, we see this as wind entering the channels and disrupting the flow of qi and blood through the meridians.

This may seem hard to fathom, but your body is actually quite open. The pores of our skin are tiny portals to our inner environments, and wind is able to force its way through those doors, especially when it is propelled via a fan. Cold wind is particularly damaging to the body. For these reasons alone, consider circulating the air in your house or office in a way that does not force the wind directly toward your body, especially your face.

Next week we will look at the role microclimates play in our immune function.

Five Chinese Herbs for High Summer

girl eating watermelon

Mother Nature is in full bloom in high summer, and these five Chinese herbs are the perfect antidotes for the heat.

Watermelon: Considered by many to be the fruit of summer, watermelon is naturally full of the nutrients, electrolytes, and liquid we need to stay hydrated in extremely hot weather. This wonderful, sweet fruit also offers a kick of sugar, which can revive us when we’ve overworked in the yard, taken a long hike, or danced in the sun at a summer music festival. I recommend buying, cleaning, and cutting up a watermelon once a week and leaving it in the refrigerator to use as a preventative medicine as well as a quick-recovery herb if you become overheated.

Mint: Mint is energetically cool and grows like a weed in the summertime. In fact, some gardeners consider anything in the mint family to be a major pest because it is so prolific. Take advantage of the availability of fresh mint by using it in your cooking or making a tea out of the leaves. Steep a large, crushed amount of mint in hot water for ten minutes, then transfer that to a pitcher filled with ice for instant iced tea. Mint is also particular helpful for stomachaches and intestinal upsets after ingesting oily, heavy foods. The light and cool nature of this herb make it the perfect accompaniment to hot weather.

Mung bean: Many Americans are unfamiliar with the lovely green mung bean, but this ingredient is actually quite common in some Asian cuisines. Mung beans are energetically cool and help the body drain excess water. As a very mild diuretic, you may think mung bean would be the wrong choice for summer. As with all herbs though, its efficacy depends on your personal constitution, as well as where you are living. Mung bean is useful in hot, damp environments, like the American south and the Midwest, where high levels of humidity can leave our insides feeling like a swamp. Incorporate mung beans in summer salads or soups, or make a tea from the rehydrated beans. You may find you develop a taste for this little green herb.

Barley tea: Barley, or Job’s tears, is another common ingredient in Asian cooking and is often found in teas designed to cool the digestive system. Like mung bean, barley helps the body drain excess water, which can improve digestion and cool the stomach. Many Americans don’t think of drinking teas made from grains, but barley is an excellent place to start. Simply boil the herb in hot water and simmer for twenty minutes. Next, drain the liquid from the herb, allow it to cool, and enjoy. Of course, if you are celiac, or gluten-sensitive, skip the barley tea and consider one of the other herbs on this list.

Chrysanthemum: Chrysanthemum tea is an excellent choice if your eyes become red and irritated in hot weather. This could be due to environmental irritants—like pollen or dust—or you may simply express heat through your eyes. If red eyes are a problem, chrysanthemum tea can bring great benefits. Considered a powerful herb for eye health, this flower has a delicate flavor that lends well to hot or cold infusions. Just remember that chrysanthemum does not need to be steeped for longer than five minutes. Also, if you have allergies to any plants in the aster family, it’s best to avoid chrysanthemum. Try mint instead.

This summer stock your pantry with these easy-to-find Chinese herbs and use them to prevent and treat mild cases of dehydration, upset stomach, and heat exhaustion. If you find one of these treasures really works for you, consider nurturing and growing them in your garden next year.

Just be sure to put the mint in its own pot!

Going on an Elimination Diet? Give Yourself a Month

woman holding ice cream

Dietary adjustments are hard. When I recommend dietary changes to patients, I ask them if they can commit to one month of effort. The annoying truth is that elimination diets, such as gluten- and dairy-free diets, can take time to show results. Often patients abandon an elimination diet too early to effectively evaluate its impact. Other elimination diets, like sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, show almost immediate results, leaving little room for doubt. I have never heard anyone say they felt better, physically, eating more candy and doughnuts.

The “costs” of an elimination diet can be surprisingly high. Not only can it be more expensive to buy items that substitute for foods you are accustomed to having, there is a time cost to learning to cook new foods or find restaurants that meet your needs. Maybe you are the only person in your house launching this diet, which is a challenge in itself. There can be mental costs to starting a diet as well, such as saying no to your mom’s chocolate cake. It’s important to factor these costs into your plan.

Giving a diet less than four weeks to prove itself is usually a formula for failure, setting you up to ping pong between deprivation and bingeing. Drastic changes are hard on your body, your mind, and in some cases, your wallet, so don’t shortchange your ability to honestly evaluate your results by giving up too early.

Once you see real results—increased energy, better digestion, fewer headaches—you will be inspired to keep going. The costs no longer feel so high, and the payoffs more than make up for your efforts. This takes time, though. Pick a four-week period, plan in advance, and get help if you need it.

Acupuncture offers wonderful support during elimination diets. It curbs cravings, optimizes your digestion, and helps your body flush out residual toxins and metabolic wastes. Together, we can come up with a plan that will enable you to get the most out of your diet so that you see lasting results.

Why Does My Acupuncturist Look at My Tongue?

dog tongue

Something you may not know about your acupuncturist is that she is used to seeing some very challenging cases. As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I have the privilege of working with clients who may be coming to my office after seeing many other practitioners. Because our medicine is not well understood in the United States, it is often used later in the disease process. One of my goals as an acupuncturist and herbalist is to change this dynamic.

That being said, I have had the opportunity to work on difficult cases and witnessed powerful changes in my patients’ wellbeing. One of the tools I use in the diagnostic process is looking at the color, texture, moisture level, and overall vitality of the tongue. Believe it or not, everyone’s tongue is different. Your tongue tells me a lot about your internal health and can offer clues to very stubborn illnesses.

The tongue illustrates the state of the organs, most specifically, the stomach. Different regions of the tongue correspond to different organ systems and can reveal heat, cold, stagnation, and phlegm in parts of the body I can’t see from the outside. I may be able to discern phlegm in the lungs or intestines from observing the tongue, or your tongue may show the cause of your anxiety or insomnia. The tongue even reveals abstract symptoms like fatigue and irritability.

The #1 thing to remember about tongue diagnosis? Don’t brush your tongue! The coating, texture, and moisture level are all key indicators of your body’s internal climate. And don’t worry. If you’ve had coffee, a Jolly Rancher, or a breakfast burrito, I am usually able to look through all of that to discern the real state of the organs. And rest assured, yours will not be the first blue tongue that has shown up in my exam room.

Is Your Diet Ruining Your Digestive Fire?

watermelon in car

Summer in Colorado is HOT, and with the onset of scorching, dry weather, we tend to gravitate toward eating cold, raw foods, such as ice cream, ice water, fruit, and salad. While it’s true that these treats initially cool our stomachs, and offer some relief from overheating, cold and raw foods can be hard on the digestive system, regardless of the temperature outside.

The digestive tract requires internal heat to process and distribute nourishment from our food and to eliminate waste products. By nature, heat is moving. (Think of a stove coil warming a pot of water; as the liquid increases in temperature, it begins to quiver until it reaches a rolling boil.) Your digestive system is similar in that it must maintain its “fire” to extract the most nutrition it can from food and liquid. An optimized metabolism is warm, not cold.

This summer, instead of working to cool your digestive tract, think of hydrating your digestive tract with room temperature foods and liquids. Often, when we reach for ice-cold beverages, we are already dehydrated and consume way more than is necessary to bring relief from a spike in temperature. This causes our digestive tracts to constrict, making it harder to process food and eliminate waste.

A few easy tips for keeping your digestive tract warm in the summer include:

  • Drinking room temperature water
  • Limiting raw vegetables to once a day, or less if you have loose stools
  • Watching your fruit intake
  • Avoiding ice cream and other frozen treats

Too much cool, raw food can wreck havoc on your stomach and intestines, leading to abdominal discomfort and even weight gain. How do you know if your digestive fire is low? Pay attention to your elimination. Loose stools are a sure sign, as are stomach pains, or lack of appetite. To prevent heat exhaustion, drink plenty of water and make sure cooked vegetables, with their high mineral and water contents, are included in your diet.

And, if you do find yourself parched, dry, and irritable, pick up nature’s electrolyte-filled cooler: watermelon. Flourishing in the summer months, the watermelon is an excellent source of cooling hydration. Its sweet taste brings moisture to the stomach and intestines, and let’s face it, what better way is there to spend an afternoon than spitting watermelon seeds off the deck?

Happy summer!

Acupuncture for Vibrant Aging

elder woman

Not many patients realize that acupuncture is a preventative medicine as well as a trauma medicine. In fact, some of the earliest developments in Chinese medicine come from Taoist practitioners who sought to preserve their health against the inevitabilities of death and old age. Longevity meant everything to early acupuncture practitioners.

Even in modern America, acupuncture is an ideal medicine for elders. With its negligible side effects, flexibility in administration, gentle nature, and low cost, acupuncture is an important contributor to vibrant aging. It is never too late to implement preventative care.

When we imagine aging, we often think of physical pain, mental confusion, difficulty moving, fatigue, and low appetite. Our zest for life diminishes, and living with discomfort becomes the new normal. Chinese medicine challenges this image of old age. In fact, our approach to health maintenance is that the body/mind/spirit are born with an innate ability to correct imbalances, regardless of age. While none of us can avoid getting older, we can subtly change our body’s energetic tendencies, leading to a better use of resources.

As we age, it becomes even more important to consciously use our body’s wisdom as a guide to healthy living. Unnecessary energetic outputs, whether mental or physical, drain us of the stamina we need to eat, sleep, move, and think clearly. The ability to gain nourishment from our food, rest at night, exercise our bodies, and perform mental functions are, and always have been, the markers of good health. Acupuncture assists older adults with these basic life-giving activities.

If someone you know is struggling with the aging process, consider acupuncture. Our medicine cares for patients well into their senior years and can provide relief from many symptoms that accompany this change in life.

And remember, it is never too late to plan for the future when it comes to your health.


Jumping into a Spring Liver Detox? Read this First.

woman smelling spring flowers

Spring is a time of internal and external renewal. After months of hibernation, we are ready to burst into action, just like a spring flower.

Many people look to harness the energy of spring by adopting a liver detox.

This could be as simple as juicing for breakfast or as radical as drinking lemon water with cayenne pepper all day. The problem is that, for many modern Americans, radical cleanses are too shocking to their systems.

A cleanse—though it may sound like a good idea to the mind—is no picnic for the body, especially when it is undertaken in the midst of a hectic lifestyle. Why? Because the liver and digestive organs are already taxed.

In a radical cleanse, toxins and metabolic wastes are shed from tissues very deep in the body. Your system becomes flooded with junk, which is why you may feel achy, crabby and weakened. It is the liver’s job to cleanse the blood of these toxins. Every time you submit your body to a radical cleanse, the liver has to work double-time. As much as it might sound great to get rid of all that waste, your body may not be strong enough to work with this cascade of toxins.

Moderate, deliberate changes in diet and lifestyle over the course of a few weeks will support the liver without adding to its stress of daily filtration and detoxification.

Slow, consistent, cumulative changes are easier for the body to integrate and maintain. After all, it wasn’t your body that said, “Give me all those cookies!” Be patient with your liver as it detoxes from goodies like alcohol, caffeine, sugar and processed foods.

Introduce seasonal gems like spring greens and fresh herbs. Be conscious of your fat and meat intake, but never go hungry. Hunger damages the stomach qi and can lead to long-term changes in your digestive health.

Above all, remember, your liver is your friend.

If you feel sure a liver cleanse is in order, seek the help of a health professional who can support you physically and emotionally as you detox. Allow yourself the time and space to transform on a deep level. Don’t force yourself to move from winter into spring too quickly.

Because we are so ready to change, spring tempts us to overdo even a healthy lifestyle. After all, we want of feel better right now! Just be gentle. Your body, like the earth, will be happier with a gradual transition.