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Treating Pain in Joints and Muscles

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 44 - September 1999

As an acupuncturist I commonly see people with pain in their joints and muscles. Often pain in joints is labelled "arthritis" and muscular pain may be classified as "fibromyalgia" but in Chinese medicine these problems are viewed differently.

Gentle pulling and massaging of painful joints will free up the energy

Gentle pulling and massaging of painful joints will free up the energy

Chinese medicine holds that there is a vital force that permeates all life. This energy is known as "Chi" and when it flows within us steadily and calmly then we will experience good health. When Chi is blocked and stagnant then we experience disharmony and disease and pain is often the result of this energy stagnating at points in the body. There is much you can do, according to Chinese theory, to alleviate pain in muscles and joints. Firstly though it is important to ensure a correct diagnosis from your health practitioner as to the cause of your pain. Once this has been established then try some of the following techniques, which have been used for centuries, with great success, to treat painful syndromes.

Pain from Wear and Tear to Joints

Degenerative joint disease, in Chinese theory is often the result of energy stagnating around the affected joint. As this is the case we need to keep joints mobile and flexible. In this way we keep the energy flowing in the affected limb. Joints that are cold and stiff need to be warmed, and gentle pulling and massaging of these painful joints will free up the energy. Joints that are hot and inflamed must not be worked on in this way as they can be made worse by heat and movement. These areas need to be helped by stimulating the energy to move through by massaging points on fingertips and toes. For example, if your wrist is inflamed gently massage your fingers – especially around the base of the nails. If your ankle is hot and swollen squeeze points around the base of the toenails. If it is hard to do this then visualise the limb, stretching it in your mind. Picture the painful joint stretching and becoming filled with healing energy. Research shows that visualisation can prompt tissue changes to take place.

Muscular Pain

Much muscular pain is probably caused by muscles being fatigued. Once this happens painful trigger points can arise. These are extremely sensitive points lying within tight bands of muscles which elicit a powerful response when pressed. Tense muscles can be extremely tender and painful and can lead to a vicious cycle of pain leading to tension which creates more fatigue and thus further pain. It is vital not to overuse these muscles.

Overbreathing can contribute to painful muscles as it leads to inadequate oxygenation and retention of acid wastes. Muscles can then become stiff and painful. For muscular pain breathing exercises are excellent as they will help relax the muscular tension that is at the root of the problem and improve oxygen transportation. Become aware of how you breathe on a day to day basis. Most of us tend to breathe shallowly, as if we are holding onto and restricting our breathing. As you learn to breathe more deeply and fully you will find that you release this anxiety and tension more easily.

Be aware of your breathing and if you feel you are breathing from the upper chest start to practise "abdominal" breathing. Once this is practised on a daily basis you will find it becomes second nature to you. With abdominal breathing you breathe from the abdomen rather than the chest. In this way the lower part of the lungs expands and we receive more of that life giving oxygen.

Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach then breathe out slowly, relaxing completely

If your wrist is inflamed gently massage your fingers, especially around the base of the nails

Abdominal Breathing

Lie comfortably on the floor or on your bed and place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach, then breathe out slowly, relaxing completely. Once your lungs are emptied, breathe in making sure that your left hand moves upwards – in other words your abdomen rises – before your chest does. Slowly and calmly breathe out. The crucial point in abdominal breathing is to ensure that as we breathe in, the abdomen rises and as you breathe out, it falls. Practise this twice a day for ten minutes and it will become completely natural for you. Practise also during your day to day activities – shopping, doing the housework – any activity is an opportunity to learn abdominal breathing. Do it whenever you feel stressed or in pain and your mind will feel clearer, your body more relaxed. Particularly remember to always practise this breathing exercise as an introduction to any other form of relaxation technique.

Pain in joints and muscles can be helped by:

  • Stopping any activity that is causing pain;
  • Warm baths with lavender oil;
  • Reflexology and aromatherapy massage;
  • Self-massaging the affected areas with oils such as lavender or Weleda Massage Balm;
  • Acupuncture;
  • Breathing techniques, deep relaxation;
  • Gentle exercise to keep the joints supple;
  • Changing your diet. Clean up your diet and then ensure that you include the following supplements: Ginkgo assists the circulation and therefore is good for muscle pain. Vitamin C has an anti-inflammatory effect. Evening Primrose Oil is beneficial for joint pains. Glucosamine sulphate is an amino sugar. It is converted into larger molecules that go to make up connective tissue. Research shows that this supplement helps to prevent the breakdown of cartilage, which occurs in osteoarthritis. This is therefore a useful supplement for those with joint problems;
  • Keeping a diary. Record what you do and see if it ties in with an increase or decrease in pain levels. Rate levels between 1-10. In this way you can decide on changes to conserve energy and decrease pain;
  • The Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator (TENS machine) is a battery powered current generator. Wires and electrodes are connected to the areas of pain to apply a small current to the nerves. This interferes with the transmission of pain messages to the brain. It is thought that TENS stimulates the body to produce its own opiates. Only use this machine after medical advice.

Once you feel more in control of pain and can manage it you will cope better with it.


1. George, M. Relax (Duncan Baird Publishers 1998).
2. Hill, S. Reclaiming The Wisdom of the Body (Constable 1997).
3. Jacobs, G. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Element Books 1997).
4. Lazarides, L. The Nutritional Health Bible (Thorsons 1997).
5. McKenna, V. A Balanced Way of Living (V. McKenna 1999).


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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