Many health conditions can predispose someone to poor circulation – the most common ones are high blood pressure, diabetes, polycythemia (sticky blood), fibromyalgia, and atherosclerosis. While it is true that problems of blood circulating freely in vessels is a problem that comes with aging, and is much less seldom seen in youth, any issue that impedes blood flow like a trauma, and changes due to stresses of chemical or toxin exposure, or inherited disorders of arterial or venous insufficiency, can occur at any age.
First things first
Headaches, unexplainable joint pains and chronic fatigue can be signs of poor circulation. As are poor circulation to the extremities, often evidenced by cold hands and feet, and also any history of stroke or transient ischemic attack (mini stroke), cramping pain in the calves or feet, restless leg syndrome are all signs that blood is not reaching the deeper compartments. If any of these are severe, go to your primary care physician to get evaluated, and follow your doctor’s advice for any followup tests that can diagnose for location, progress and severity of a problem. Your doctor might recommend an angiography to test the patency (openness and flexibility) of your blood vessels, an EKG (heart monitoring test), or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging involving in a hospital or medical center visit, actual test is performed to get a bird’s eye view of your organs and structures). These tests are not scary, and usually are simply a screening to rule out life-threatening causes such as emboli (clots or bubbles in a vessel) or thrombi, and any other issues that cause blockages in circulation of blood. These tests are just tools to investigate a cause for your problem(s), and since they are not painful (the technicians performing them help with relaxation by giving you a mild sedative) there is no reason to avoid or ignore a recommendation to undergo them.
Once a serious issue has been ruled out, your doctor may find that there is unexplained weakness, fatigue or pain and suggest further testing. Some blood tests may also be run to check for markers of chronic inflammation, and inherited disorders. It is a good idea to have all the information in hand before weighing treatment options, whether alternative medicine treatments or conventional.
What does acupuncture have to offer for pain?
Unexplained pain and fatigue are commonly seen by practitioners of acupuncture and herbal medicine. Because we use a more functional method of assessing health, and investigate the interactions between digestive and immune system, brain, and other organ systems, our final diagnosis tends to cover a bit more ground than simple malfunction of one organ or system. For instance, a weakness in immune system functioning can manifest as frequent colds or allergies in one patient, and as chronic pain in another. Still another person might have headaches that occur late in the day which is associated with a weakness in kidney and bladder energy.
The use of channels to diagnose for pain is very important, both for choosing the right herbal ingredients, or formula, and for administering acupuncture. A headache occurring on the sides of the head corresponds to the gallbladder channel, and can mean that decision-making is difficult for the patient, and is a factor. This is because the gallbladder is aligned with the emotions that want to act fast, find long-term solutions, and confront a problem. If a patient is unable or feels challenged to use their own will and be assertive, it can show up on the gallbladder meridian! Compare this to the patient with a frontal headache – that corresponds to the stomach channel – meaning there is some digestive issue at work, or some problem with worry and anxiety.
What will herbs do for my circulation?
It is entirely possible to utilize an herbal formula to address particular types of circulatory disturbances. There are herbs that go to specific parts of the body, for example, du zhong (eucommia bark) is an herb that helps strengthen the low back and lumbar spine. Ji xue teng (spatholobus stem) nourishes the tendons and restores blood flow in cases of tendonitis, bursitis and muscle strains. Tao ren (persica) is peach kernel seed, and is the main ingredient in formulas to promote blood flow in menstrual disorders such as bad cramping, irregular periods, and infertility.
Wonderful salvia root, used by Japanese cardiologists
Dan shen (salvia root) is especially useful for cardiovascular disorders and is used in Japan for angina (generalized chest pain due to vascular insufficiency), Dan shen promotes microcirculation to arterioles thereby encouraging collateralization of blood vessels in ischemic diseases like atheroscerosis, and numerous studies in China have shown it helps restore proper rhythms of vasoconstriction and vasodilation, and when compared to drugs that resemble this function, it has far fewer side effects.
Other significant herbs for circulation listed by condition include:
Headaches: Corydalis (chuan xiong)
Pain and numbness in the extremities: Safflower (hong hua)
Arthritis: Corydalis (yan hu suo) in combination with others
Raynaud’s Disease: Cinnamon twig (Gui zhi)
Abdominal pain: Linderae (Wu yao)
Pain in back of neck and upper extremities: Notopterygi (Qiang huo)
Pain in legs or knees: Achyranthes (Huai niu xi)
Formulas for pain have been studied and updated to address modern patient needs. Many are also available in a patent form, such as Shao fu zhu yu tang (Unblock the lower orifices) and Evergreen Herbs, a large distributor of herbal medicines located in Irvine, California, carries patents developed by John Chen, a licensed acupuncturist and pharmacist. Dr. Chen has written extensive volumes on the subjects of the pharmaceutical use of Chinese herbs, and includes both functional and medical uses for herbs, and drug/herb interactions. Some more commonly prescribed patents from Evergreen Herbs include over 20 formulas that address various types of pain syndromes, like Flex MLT for tendinitis, Back Support HD for pain from herniated disk, Flex (Spur) for pain from bone spurs, and Migratol for migraine headaches.
Can I combine drugs and herbs for pain?
Numerous studies have shown that herbal ingredients can actually help drugs work more effectively. Because many herbs actually strengthen the liver, the use of herbs in conjunction with drugs can assist the metabolism of the drug and help your body detoxify from it more quickly. Still, to be cautious, I think that it is best to take drugs and herbs separately, and at different times of the day and night. I also think it is just simpler to start taking herbs when you know you are ready to wean off of a pain medication, and work with both your doctor and your herbalist in making sure you are taking the proper dosages of each.
While NSAIDS and aspirin, and other pain relievers such as Tramadol and Oxycodone, may be necessary at times to halt pain in its tracks, these do not represent long-term solutions and often are hard on the organs when taken long term. Herbal analgesics can provide not only symptomatic relief, but they often also contain ingredients that actually heal underlying tissues, restore microcirculation, reduce inflammation and restore function. It should also be mentioned that herbal analgesics can work just as quickly as drugs, but this is not the case every time. I usually recommend that patients use conventional medicine to get pain under control, and then switch over to herbs once the pain levels have been reduced by 20% to 30%. Drugs halt the production of enzymes and that is why they are fast-acting. Herbal ingredients can also block pathways to the brain, but in a less harsh and less addicting manner than most drugs. Case in point: Researchers at UCI, Irvine, have identified a component of corydalis called DHCB which blocks pain signals to the brain, and are currently investigating ways to synthesize this ingredient for manufacture as a synthetic drug.