Acupuncture for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) & ME
CFS, also called Myalgic Encephalitis (ME) is long term tiredness and exhaustion which does not get better with sleep or rest. It can have an extremely debilitating effect on daily life; sufferers of severe CFS may have to spend most of the day in bed. Other symptoms may include:
Muscle and joint pain
Poor concentration and short-term memory
Tender/ swollen lymph nodes
Digestive problems e.g. bloating, diarrhoea, constipation
Depression, anxiety or panic attacks
The exact cause of CFS is unknown to western medicine; it is thought that viral infections such as glandular fever can trigger the disease, although stress and other emotional factors, as well as genetic susceptibility, may also play a part. Conventional treatment aims to minimise some of the symptoms with drugs such as painkillers and anti-depressants, and to find ways of helping the patient manage their energy most effectively.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and TCM
As with all diseases, the TCM approach to CFS is individualised to each patient; treatment begins with a detailed consultation in which the therapist discusses all aspects of a patient’s health, takes their pulse and looks at the tongue which can provide a wealth of information about the inner workings of the body. This enables the therapist to come to some understanding of how the patient’s Qi is impaired and how to redress their natural inner balance.
Often CFS patients are suffering from what is known in TCM as a ‘Retained Pathogen’. This is an originally external pathogen which has invaded the body and is lurking inside. ‘Pathogen’ here means an energetic entity which blocks the free flow of Qi; this is something more subtle than the western concepts of bacteria or virus, although it may well come along with them. It is conceptualised by analogy with climatic factors; just as extreme weather inhibits natural processes outside, so pathogens have the same effect in the body.
The patient may or may not have experienced acute symptoms when the pathogen invaded, and although any symptoms will have abated, the pathogen has not been expelled. This might be due to not taking time to recover properly after the illness, to constitutional weakness, or to exposure to damaging climatic conditions. It may also be due to the use of antibiotics, which kill the bacteria but trap the pathogen.
This retained pathogen is typically ‘Damp’ and/or ‘Heat’. Damp in TCM refers to a build up of bodily fluids which are not metabolised and circulated properly. It causes heaviness, lethargy, poor concentration and dull headaches. It can easily interfere with the digestion, leading to symptoms such as bloating and weight gain. Damp is difficult to move – hence the chronic nature of CFS – and it often combines with Heat which can interfere with sleep patterns, and cause symptoms such as excess sweating and a sore throat.
In this situation treatment will aim to ‘drain’ Damp from the body and clear Heat if necessary. This will involve the use of acupuncture points specific to these tasks as well as herbal therapy if appropriate. Appropriate dietary choices will be encouraged; certain foods can help to clear Damp or Heat, whilst others can exacerbate the symptoms.
Is Acupuncture Helpful in the treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
A recent clinical trial in China 1 found acupuncture to have a definite therapeutic effect on tiredness in chronic fatigue subjects, with Fatigue Assessment Instrument scores reduced from 148 to 99, and associated improvements in depression, anxiety and interpersonal relationships.
1 Wang O, Xiong JX. Clinical observation on effect of electro-acupuncture on back-shu points in treating chronic fatigue syndrome. Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi . 2005 Sep;25(9):834-6.