Over this past weekend, I battled a nagging headache that seemed to start in my upper back. The pain traveled up the left side of my neck and into my ear and jaw. With every twinge, I kept thinking, “What new kind of hell is this?” I generally don’t get headaches, and this one was odd. I went to bed Saturday with the headache, but when I woke up on Sunday, the pain was gone. Gone that is, until I went outside, and then the pain started right up again.
Aha! At least I could figure out where the pain was coming from. You see, when we go outside in Minnesota in December, baby, it’s cold. And I mean really cold where stuff freezes solid in a couple of hours. Saturday morning, right before the headache pain began, I had worked out inside and then still wet and sweaty, I threw my jacket on and went right outside to my car and drove home. Not smart, I know, but I was only a few minutes from home. At any rate, I was pretty chilled.
So in Chinese medicine, I had pain that was caused by the cold. While this may sound strange, in reality I see people in the clinic who have symptoms related to the cold all the time. Cold can be a pathogen in Chinese medicine, in that it can make you sick. However, this is more than just the theory that if you get a chill, you’ll catch a cold.
Simply put, pathogenic cold is too much cold energy, or a lack of warmth. Physically, cold can be a problem when it causes things to contract and slow down. Like a creek that freezes in the winter, cold in your body also causes contraction and stagnation.
One of the most common symptoms of pathogenic cold is pain. Cold creates a domino effect in which the cold causes energetic stagnation, which causes pain. In the clinic, one of the most obvious signs that a patient’s pain is caused by cold, is that the painful area feels cold—much colder than the rest of their body. Another sign that pain is caused by the cold is that it flares up when the weather changes, turns cold, or becomes damp. For example, many people who suffer from arthritis find that it’s much worse in the cold weather.
Cold can be the underlying cause of a number of patterns in Chinese medicine. Some people are cold to their core, which means that their Yang, or internal pilot light, is low. They may feel sluggish, want to eat warm foods and drink warm drinks, have a pale white or bluish complexion, and have loose stools and/or frequent clear urine.
This pathogenic cold can be caused by a variety of factors. First, some people are just plain cold. Their body constitution tends to be cold; they haven’t done anything wrong to cause their chilliness. However, as products of our environment, many people have problems with cold because they live in a cold climate (uh, that would be me), live in a basement apartment, eat too many cold foods, or are not physically active enough.
It’s not rocket science to know that if you have symptoms caused by cold, you need to warm things up. The trick is in the how. Here are some simple ways to create warmth and alleviate your symptoms:
- A simple first line of treatment is through the physical application of heat. In the clinic many practitioners use something called moxabustion, which is the application of burning herbs near appropriate acupuncture points or near the painful area. Moxabustion pretty much smells like you’re smoking pot, which tends to not work out so well in an office building, so I use a far-infrared heat lamp in the clinic. At home, you can use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or a heated rice bag.
- Movement also creates heat. A little exercise can get your energy moving, create heat, and increase your range of motion. In addition, massage and stretching can warm you up and help relieve your symptoms.
- Get warm any way you can. Layers of clothing, a sauna, hot tub, or a warm weather vacation all can do the trick.
- Talk to your practitioner about a warming herbal formula. There are several formulas that can help, depending on your symptoms. Warming herbs that you may have in your kitchen include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and red peppers.
- You can also warm yourself through Chinese food therapy. This may take some time, but energetically warm foods can help warm you up. Spicy foods, pungent dishes, soups, and foods that have been cooked a long time (roasted) tend to be warming. Avoid cold or frozen foods and foods that are raw. Your practitioner can help you choose specific foods that are good for your symptoms or you can check out my book, Simple Steps for lists of energetically warming foods.
My personal plan to avoid another headache episode includes not going outside when I’m sweaty and chilled, lots of layers of warm clothing, and eating plenty of soups.