I wrote this on a day when I woke up with back pain severe enough to bring tears to my eyes. Author Allie Brosh drafted her own pain scale, using humor to describe each level of severity: “6: Ow. Okay, my pain is super legit now. 7: I see Jesus coming for me and I’m scared.” On her pain scale, mine was a 6 or a 7. (Side note: prevention is the key to success in Chinese Medicine. If you're a 1 or higher on the 0-10 scale, give your joints support with this formula.)
I scheduled an appointment for acupuncture. While she was treating me, my acupuncturist and I discussed the emotional causes that could be adding to the pain. At the end of the acupuncture session, she showed me some exercises I could do at home to help my lower back. I was in a lot less pain when I left. I also made a note to call my therapist to explore the underlying emotional issues that might be going on. I felt a lot better after acupuncture and no longer felt like I was walking lopsided.
I used to live with chronic pain all the time—not back pain, but unbearable pelvic pain. It was bad enough that I would go either to work on painkillers and wouldn’t be very functional—or I would go to work without painkillers and wouldn’t be very functional. It wasn’t a great way to live. A friend of mine, Elyse Tera, was in training to become an acupuncturist and suggested I try acupuncture to manage my symptoms. I went to see her at the school clinic and I got better. After a few treatments, I no longer needed pain medication. (N.B.: this is why I became an acupuncturist myself.)
One way of describing how I felt at the end of each day with chronic pain is that I was “out of spoons”. In The Spoon Theory, Christine Miserandino explains to a friend what it’s like to live with Lupus using an analogy of starting out each day with a set number of “spoons” to do your everyday activities. She explains how it may take more spoons for someone with chronic pain to do everyday activities than for someone who is not in chronic pain. You may have few or none left at the end of the day, or you might even have to borrow some spoons from the next day. A lot of people with chronic pain and illness of any kind have found it useful to talk about their own day-to-day struggle through this metaphor. (Sometimes they call themselves “spoonies”.)
There is another way to explain it. Instead of "spoons," I could also say I was out of Qi. I might also say that my Qi was stuck.
What is Qi?
According to Giovanni Maciocia, the author of The Foundations of Chinese Medicine (a textbook for students of acupuncture), Qi is “an energy that manifests itself simultaneously on the physical and spiritual level.” If you like, you can think of it as “The Force” from Star Wars. Qi is what gets us through each and every day. We get Qi from the food we eat, the air we breathe, and from our body’s processes.
Here are some things that can go wrong with our Qi:
Qi can be deficient—meaning we don’t have enough of it.
Qi can get stuck—causing pain or lack of flow in our lives.
Qi can be rebellious—which is really not as cool as is sounds. Rebellious Qi goes the wrong way, like in heartburn and vomiting.
So how does this relate to pain?
When Qi and Blood are stuck we may experience pain. When Qi and Blood flow smoothly in our bodies, there is no pain. Over time, stuck Qi and Blood can also deplete us of the Qi and Blood we already have. If we are deficient in Qi, sometimes that can lead to Qi getting stuck. Does this sound hopeless? Sometimes when you’re in a lot of pain it just might.
How can acupuncture help?
Acupuncture can help build your body’s Qi. Building Qi means developing a deeper well to draw from, providing more Qi (or more spoons) to accomplish the things you need to do. Acupuncture can help unblock stuck Qi and Blood, relieving pain, which means you’ll have more Qi (or more spoons) available to get you through your day.
Is it really that simple?
Sometimes it can be! Other times there are other factors involved. Your acupuncturist will ask you questions to see if your pain is worse with cold, heat, damp or dry weather. Here are some other questions they may ask:
Is the pain worse in the morning when you get up?
Does it get better as your day goes on?
Is your pain worse at the end of the day?
Is there anything else that makes the pain worse or better?
All of this information will help your acupuncturist determine the best course of treatment for you.
For some people, mental health issues may also rob them of their spoons. Acupuncture can help with feelings such as frustration, sadness, anger, anxiety, and depression, which is the other part of restoring your Qi and your spoons.
I’m glad that the Spoon Theory exists: it gives people with chronic pain and illness a common language to talk about what’s going on for them. Qi is another way of talking about this. If you have chronic pain and illness, acupuncture may be able to help you get more of your Spoons (and your Qi) back. For more information, ask your local acupuncturist.