Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It creates a painful rash, usually across the chest, ribs or abdomen. It usually lasts between two and four weeks, but it may also cause what is known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a form of nerve pain which may continue for several months even after the rash has cleared.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Acupuncture, time is an essential factor in the treatment of shingles. It will be most successful during the early stage of the disease when symptoms first begin to appear, although it can be treated at any time. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine offer a natural and effective solution for shingles at all stages of the disease. Read on to find out more about how they work for this common, painful condition.
The Immune System in Chinese Medicine
TCM is an ancient system of medicine which is thousands of years old. Because early doctors of TCM developed much of their theory based on careful observation without the aid of modern science, Eastern and Western healthcare practitioners have evolved different views about how the body works. One example of this difference is: The Immune System.
Early TCM doctors and the rest of the world did not know about the pathogenesis of microorganisms; these early TCM doctors observed that infections were caused by climatic factors such as damp heat, cold and wind invasion. Under normal circumstances, you are protected from these factors by what is known as Wei Qi, or Defensive Qi. This is the closest thing to the immune system in TCM. It is a form of qi which is circulated around the exterior of your body by your Lungs. This forms a barrier between the inside of your body and the outside world, stopping pathogens from entering.
However, if your Lungs are weak for any reason (emotional or physical stress, diet, environmental factors ect), your body may be left vulnerable to attack. In TCM, wind is known as the “chief of one hundred diseases.” Because it is light and moves quickly, it can easily penetrate your body’s defenses when they are weak. It can then enter the meridians, allowing other pathogenic factors such as heat and cold to enter too. These pathogens can then cause blockages in the meridians, resulting in many different symptoms including pain.
Although we now know more about the inner workings of our bodies, TCM practitioners today still use terms such as heat, cold and wind to describe diseases. This is because they paint an accurate picture of the pattern of the disease and how it affects us, making them a valuable diagnostic tool.
What is Shingles in Chinese Medicine?
Shingles is an example of toxic heat which builds up in your system causing Liver-qi stagnation (qi cannot flow freely, causing pain and other symptoms such as headaches), Lung-qi deficiency (the Lungs are weak and unable to fight off the pathogen) or Heart heat (the disease penetrates to a deeper level causing symptoms such as restlessness and insomnia). The exact diagnosis depends on the progression of your illness, your symptoms, and the specific cause.
There are two common manifestations of shingles in TCM:
1. Liver and Gallbladder damp-heat with fire toxin – there will be red lesions and other signs of heat such as fever, thirst and a red complexion. This type of shingles is often triggered by stress which severely affects the Liver and Gallbladder.
2. Damp-heat in the Spleen – lesions are widespread and oozy. Other symptoms include general weakness and fatigue. There could be an underlying deficiency of the Spleen due to poor diet or excessive worrying.
What to Expect from Your Acupuncture Treatments
Your exact treatment will depend on the stage of your disease. It is better to start your TCM treatment as early as possible to ensure the best results.
The Acute Stage:
The primary symptom is blistering with pain. Treatment aims to control the progress of the illness, prevent new lesions from forming, resolve the rash, reduce the pain and boost defensive qi (the immune system).
TCM sees shingles as a combination of excess and deficiency syndromes. In the acute stage, there is almost always an element of excess such as wind, heat or damp. This must be controlled first before treatment can progress. Treatments should be carried out frequently to reduce the intensity and duration of symptoms.
You may be concerned about the infectious nature of shingles at this stage of the disease. However, your acupuncturist is well trained not to spread your shingles to others, so don’t hesitate to come in and get help as soon as you can.
The Healing Stage:
At this stage, the rash begins to form a crust as it heals. It is now essential to take care of any underlying conditions or constitutional imbalances. Your shingles symptoms were the last thing to show up, so they will be the first thing to disappear. However, the virus was likely “the straw that broke the camels back”, and there will be other, deeper issues which need to be addressed to promote healing throughout your entire body.
By finding the weak link in your system, we can help to stop the disease from progressing and turning into PHN. Acupuncture can also help to promote proper circulation, preventing residual pain.
The Chronic Pain Stage:
Seeking treatment early enough can prevent you from even getting here. However, many patients have tried everything else first before learning about how acupuncture can help shingles. By this point, much time has already gone by in pain. If PHN persists for more than three months after shingles, it is likely that even heavy duty painkillers will not help. Your sleep may be affected and even wearing a bra can be uncomfortable. At this stage, the illness has started to affect multiple layers of your life, and a negative cycle has been triggered.
Fortunately, acupuncture is still able to help, although at this point halting and reversing neuralgia is a slower process. Even at this late stage, acupuncture does help to calm nerves and promote nerve regeneration. It encourages faster healing and can help with sleep and other areas affected by the neuralgia from shingles.
So if you are suffering from shingles, take action and schedule an acupuncture appointment as soon as you can. Early treatment can prevent the disease from developing into PHN and causing you more problems in the months to come.