Relieving Pain, Restoring Movement with Five Element Acupuncture
Pain, especially chronic pain, is understood in Five Element Acupuncture as a signal of stagnation. In other words, pain is the result of an interruption of natural flow and movement in the tissues of the body. In health, energy, blood and fluids move unimpeded to nourishment the entire being. Trauma and injury block the natural flow, creating stagnation and pain.
The goal of Five Element acupuncture treatment is always to restore the natural flow, thereby addressing the root cause of the pain. The focus of treatment for chronic pain is long-term healing, not simply short-term analgesic relief.
The root causes of chronic pain are most often more than physical. An accident or injury will cause visible physical damage, but hidden emotional trauma and ongoing stress are stored in the body, too. Sometimes, an accident injury is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back,” triggering a cascade of pain-related ailments that seem inexplicable.
Trauma and long-term stress may be a source of chronic pain and illness long after the physical injury has healed. If our body’s defensive mechanisms (acute stress response) are triggered too often or at the wrong time, flooding us with stress chemicals, we may be unable to recover and return to a calmer physiological state. We end up stuck in fight-or-flight. Brain, heart, digestion and immune function all suffer, as resources are hijacked to fuel the acute stress response. Traumatic events, especially in childhood, have an adverse impact on nearly every long-term health outcome.
Movement, Vitality, Flow: Spring and the Wood Element
After a cold and dormant Winter, nothing says “Spring!” like the sprouting of plants and the new buds on trees. It’s not hard to understand why Spring is associated with the Wood Element in Five Element acupuncture. Spring is the bringer of new life, growth and renewal. The surge of activity in nature that comes with the longer days and warmth makes Spring a welcome and celebrated season in every human community on the planet. In the Asian and Chinese calendar, Spring Festival marks the New Year. It is the most important holiday.
The qualities of Wood Element energy that manifest in nature – birth, growth and renewal – are also at work within the human body-mind. As life comes out of hibernation and begins to move again, our vitality also rises with the season. If you have been receiving Five Element acupuncture during the Winter, you may find that Spring brings a turning point in symptoms and illness. The arrival of the Wood Element dispels fatigue, pain and depression. In truth, the healing work begins inside, deeply hidden during the Winter. The surge in Wood energy with Spring allows the new vitality and health to be seen and felt. The powerful flow of Wood energy brings movement and vitality that can help dispel longstanding, chronic pain in the tissues of the body.
Transforming Pain, Stiffness and Stagnation to Flexibility, Resilience, and Movement
If we think about the growth of a tree, we can understand how the Wood Element works in the human body-mind and why it is so important for chronic pain relief. The growth of a tree is orderly, not chaotic. The movement of the tree’s energy is directed outward in Spring, from root to branch. There is a pattern to growth, yet the tree can also adapt to circumstances – soil, wind, moisture, temperature, light. A healthy, unimpeded Wood Element shows organized, directed movement with resilience and flexibility.
In the human body, the Wood Element governs smooth flow and organization of movement, including the regulation of physiological cycles. The directed, orderly nature of Wood energy makes it especially vulnerable to stagnation. If the natural flow of Wood energy is interrupted by trauma, injury or emotional stress, it gets blocked up. Chronic pain symptoms as diverse as migraine headaches, joint pain, and painful menstruation are often related to blockage of the Wood Element energy.
Healing Chronic Pain with the Wood Element
Here are some of the ways that the Wood Element impacts chronic pain in the body:
Joint Pain – Tendon and Ligaments
The Wood Element in the body governs tendons and ligaments. These are the tissues that connect bone to bone (ligament), or bone to muscle (tendon). One place to look for stagnant Wood energy is therefore in the joints, where it can cause pain.
The Wood Element’s role in the acute stress response is to guard and defends us in response to threat. If someone cuts you off in traffic, you instinctively grip the steering wheel tightly. You may feel braced, rigid and stiff. It may take a while to relax once the threat has passed. This is your Wood Element, defending you against threat.
Under chronic stress, the body may lose its ability to relax, leaving you feeling habitually braced and rigid. Tension is stored in the ligaments, tendons and muscles. This stored tension can show up anywhere in the musculoskeletal system – chronic low back pain, headaches, joint pain – depending on the person’s vulnerabilities.
Migraine headaches, characteristically on one side of the head, are frequently related to disturbance of the Wood Element. The acupuncture meridians (channels of energy) that are governed by the Wood Element flow from head to foot along the lateral sides of the body. While the underlying causes of migraine are diverse, these lateral pathways are often blocked when there is pain.
Menstrual Cycles, PMS and Pain
The Wood Element governs the organization of flow and the regulation of physiological cycles. Importantly, this includes regulating the flow of blood during the menstrual cycle. It’s not unusual for a woman to find she has skipped a cycle or had mid-cycle spotting when she is under stress. Her body is diverting resources to the acute stress response. If she is healthy, the cycles return to normal when the stress is gone.
Under chronic stress, the menstrual cycle is disturbed and the energy and blood both stagnate. This causes painful menses with blood clots, as well as premenstrual stress. In the extreme, stagnant blood can cause cysts or uterine fibroids to form.
Digestive Pain and Nausea
When our defenses are aroused, the nervous system shuts down digestion in order to divert resources to the acute stress response. Heart rate increases, and blood and energy flow to the muscles, so that we are ready to flee or fight. Digestion, though essential for long-term survival, is inhibited for a short duration to deal with an immediate threat.
In Five Element theory, digestion is governed primarily by the Earth Element. In response to perceived threat, however, the Wood Element exerts control over digestion and shuts it down. Under chronic stress, if the Wood energy is disturbed it will repeatedly shut down digestion. This may show up in digestive symptoms like nausea, heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome. Long term, this inhibits the body’s ability to metabolize nutrients and take in nourishment from food.
Anger, Emotional Pain and the Wood Element
Robust Wood Element energy is assertive and exuberant. It gives us the power to mobilize and take action in the world. That includes not only protecting and defending ourselves in response to threat, but also giving birth to our hopes, plans and creativity.
Emerging into the world requires force, whether we think of a seed bursting from its pod, or a baby coming down the birth canal. Wood gives us the emotion of anger, the force that breaks through obstacles. In balance, Wood energy arises in response to need, asserts itself, and then falls away.
In Western culture, anger gets a bad rap and is understood only in its destructive power. In Five Element acupuncture, anger is seen as an instinctive and necessary part of our emotional makeup. It’s only when the natural rise and fall of Wood energy is thwarted that anger becomes damaging. When Wood energy is blocked, anger may come out as explosive rage. But more likely, anger may collapse and turn inward, expressed as resentment, frustration and depression. The Chinese ideogram for anger shows a female slave under the hand of a master. Anger is the appropriate response to injustice. It is the emotion of those who are disempowered, abused and victimized.
Balancing the Wood Element to Relieve Chronic Pain
Five Element acupuncture treatment can definitely help to balance the Wood Element, relieving chronic pain and emotional distress. Here a few things you can do on your own:
- Regular exercise helps to mobilize the joints and muscles, relieving the stored tension from chronic stress that causes pain. Exercise also releases endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals, helping us relax and dispersing anger and frustration.
- Bring mindful awareness to your pain and emotions, scanning the body for areas of held tension. When you find a place in your body where physical or emotional discomfort is held, consciously breathe into that area. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to reduce pain.
- Seek empowerment, take action. We often have more power than we realize. If you are abused or victimized, find a way out or seek help.
- Alaine D. Duncan. The Tao of Trauma. North Atlantic Books, 2019.
- Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee. The Seven Emotions. Monkey Press, 1996.
- J.R Worsley. Classical Five Element Acupuncture, Vol. III: The Five Elements and the Officials. 1998.