A few weeks ago, one of my regular patients came to me because her back was really acting up. In her early seventies*, I had treated this woman for a number of aches and pains, but had not spent much time treating her lower back. This particular patient is one of strong opinions, and on this particular day she was clear; her back needed attention.
When I got her onto my treatment table, I took a look at her lower back and saw that there were quite a few purple spots near the surface of the skin. They weren’t bruises, but it looked like varicose veins in the area of her low back and sacrum. The spots were a little bit unusual, but the purple color told me what I needed to know; blood stagnation was causing her discomfort.
Throughout the world and its many cultures, color has meaning. In Chinese medicine, various colors offer up clues to the state of your health. For example if you have a rash that is very red, you can assume that there’s some heat to it. If you know someone who is very pale, it means that they run on the cold side or their energy is depleted.
In Chinese medicine, good health is associated with flow, and when that flow is obstructed in some way, it causes illness and pain. The color purple is frequently seen in cases where there is lack of movement or flow; something we acupuncturists call stagnation. In many cases, purple indicates a stagnation of blood.
Okay, you know your blood moves; it’s pumped by your heart and travels throughout your body in your veins and arteries. So how can it not move?
There are a number of conditions that are directly associated with stagnant blood, including bruises, varicose veins, menstrual cramps, blood clots, and coronary artery disease (blocked arteries). In addition, masses, lumps, abscesses and ulcers are also considered to be caused by blood stagnation in Chinese medicine.
There are a couple of hallmark signs of stagnant blood. First, it’s usually painful. The pain tends to be fixed in one place and feel deep, sharp, or colicky. Secondly, in many cases, there is some presentation of the color purple. For example, varicose veins are visibly purple. More subtly, someone who is suffering from blood clots or coronary artery disease will usually have a purple looking tongue or a purple hue to their fingernails.
In Western medicine, blood stagnation is usually associated with hematology, such as clotting issues, strokes, and heart disease. As you get older, your doctor may advise you to take an aspirin a day, which helps your blood move by making your platelets (which help clotting) a little less sticky. If you’ve had a history of blood clots, you may be prescribed a stronger blood thinner, such as Coumadin.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of herbs that are used to move blood. Frequently, they are site specific. For example, Szechuan lovage root (chuan xiong) is used for gynecological problems like menstrual cramps or amenorrhea (no periods). Salvia root, (dan shen) is used for blood stagnation in the lower abdomen or the chest. A more familiar herb, Turmeric (yu jin) is used for a variety of conditions associated with stagnant blood, and is gaining attention as a supplement in treating inflammation and in the prevention of Alzheimer’s and certain kinds of cancers.
My patient with low back pain was taking a number of prescription medications, and was not interested in an herbal formula. However, knowing that her condition was related to stagnant blood, I included a couple of acupuncture points in my treatment known to help move blood and relieve pain. I also did a little Chinese bodywork, called Tui Na to get the blood moving in her lower back. While she wasn’t ready to go out dancing, she was definitely feeling better when she left my office.
*Identifying details have been changed.