Several years ago, I went on a kayaking trip in the canyon country of Utah and Arizona. Our kayaks were loaded down with camping gear, food, and far more stuff than we would ever need for a week in the wild. Fully loaded, my kayak rode a little low in the water, so when I was paddling, I was constantly sitting in about three inches of water.
About half way through the trip, a muscle in my butt seized up so badly that I could barely walk. I was able to paddle all day long, but when we stopped for the evening, I could barely walk. It was only later that I realized that sitting in the cold water had been the source of my misery.
In Chinese medicine, we hear a lot about heat as a pathogen (or something that makes you sick). I treat a lot of people with hot flashes, night sweats, irritability, restlessness, and severe thirst—all hot symptoms. We are creatures of nature, and our bodies mirror many of nature’s patterns. While we are far quicker to recognize heat as a problem, damage from cold can be far more insidious and difficult to recognize.
There are several different types of cold and ways it can make you feel less than stellar. Here are a few:
External cold. This is your garden variety cold or flu. It’s considered external, because it is a fairly superficial condition which will be gone soon. Symptoms include lots of aches and pains, a mild sore throat, loss of voice, a low grade fever, and lots of chills. In contrast, if your symptoms include a high fever, lots of sweating, and a very sore throat, your illness would be considered warm in nature, not cold.
Cold impediment. This is when cold gets into your muscles or joints and causes pain. It’s called an impediment, or Cold Bi, because your energetic pathways are blocked by cold (and usually damp) causing you pain. You know it’s a cold pattern because the pain is worse when it’s cold out, and it feels better when you heat the painful area up. The nature of cold is that it contracts, so the colder it is, the more painful and tight you will feel.
Internal cold. You have an internal pilot light that warms your core, and fuels every function in your body. In Chinese medicine, it’s called Yang, and without it you would die. Your pilot light can get low for a variety of reasons, and can wreak havoc in a number of ways. Without sufficient heat to metabolize water, you may retain water, get up several times a night to pee, develop dampness, or have problems with phlegm. It also takes a certain amount of warmth to digest your food properly, so if your internal heat is low, you may have digestive difficulties or diarrhea with undigested food (I know, gross!). Internal cold can affect almost any of your organs, including your uterus, making fertility an issue. If you have internal cold, you will likely feel cold to the core, have a pale complexion, and feel fatigued in general.
These are just a few of the most common ways cold can damage your health. There are actually a number of conditions that can be caused by cold. However, in general if your symptoms are worse when it’s cold out or when you feel cold and heat makes it better, there is some element of a cold pathogen at work.
So what can you do if cold is making you sick? The simplest thing, which you can do at home, is to warm yourself up. If you have cold joint or muscle pain, put a heating pad or warm rice bag (found at most drug stores) directly on the area that is painful. If you have internal cold or feel cold to your core, place the heat source either at the small of your back or on your abdomen, right below your belly button. Warm yourself a couple of times a day. In addition, remember that the wind, especially a cold one, is not your friend. Cover your head and neck when you go outside to avoid letting the cold penetrate into your body.
In the clinic, there are a number of ways your acupuncturist can warm you up and relieve your symptoms. They can apply heat, either in the form of moxabustion or a far-infrared heat lamp—both techniques are very penetrating and can warm you up fairly quickly. In addition to acupuncture, your practitioner can also prescribe an herbal formula that is warm in nature. They can also talk to you about foods that are also warming. Some simple additions to your diet that are warming include ginger, cinnamon, and scallions.
As for my cold kayaking butt, it turned out to be something called Piriformis Syndrome, in which the muscle was contracted and in spasm to the point that I was completely hobbled. It took me a couple of weeks of warming, acupuncture, and physical therapy, but it healed completely. I have also learned that when it’s really cold outside, to keep everything warm, including my butt.