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Sickle Cell Disease and Chronic Pain

Welcome to the discussion of sickle cell disease and chronic pain as they relate to the use of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine! If you’ve received acupuncture for any number of physical, mental and emotional concerns, you may already know how supportive and life-changing it can be. As we look at a Western diagnosis like “sickle cell disease” and put it under the lens of Chinese Medicine, we have to take a step back so that we see and treat the whole person, the specific issue or disease pattern being only one piece to a unique and complex individual. In doing so, it becomes possible to link signs and symptoms to the many facets of a person’s life. We are a unique and fascinating combination of our biology, our natures, our life experiences, our genetics, our habits and lifestyles and our emotional wellbeing. How does this relate to sickle cell disease and chronic pain?
Sickle Cell Disease involves a number of concerning and uncomfortable symptoms that can have a great effect on a person’s overall wellbeing and quality of life. Painful episodes associated with misshapen (normally round) red blood cells getting stuck in the smaller blood vessels mainly around the chest, abdomen and joints can be debilitating and can last for weeks at a time. Because these cells are prone to bursting and have a short lifespan, anemia and lack of oxygen necessary for all healthy organ function and respiration are also major concerns. Some people experience visual disturbances as the blood vessels of the retina are filled with sickle cells. The disease may bring on any number of issues alongside physical symptoms. For some, having to accept the diagnosis and living with uncertainty may cause anxiety and depression. Decreased blood production and available oxygen circulating in the body may cause fatigue as well as long term damage to the brain, lungs, spleen and kidneys. Prescription drugs, including opiates for pain, can help some of these symptoms and improve an affected person’s quality of life. On the other hand, some drugs may carry with them the danger of a lifelong dependency to treat the symptoms as well as negative side effects. Whenever someone comes to me with a set of symptoms and/or a confirmed diagnosis, I always want to know what specific phenomena that person is experiencing, regardless of the label. No two people have exactly the same experience, even if the symptoms line up. One of the great things about acupuncture treatments is that I can design a session to address common symptoms as well as several other components that may show up surrounding the illness. Acupuncture, when used alongside traditional treatments for diseases or often just by itself, is a wonderful and scientifically well documented way to support just about any condition.
How does it work? Acupuncture affects chemical neurotransmitters in the body and stimulates the body’s self-healing process. Over 2000 available points are connected by pathways or meridians, and our life force or “Qi” (pronounced “chee) travels along these pathways. Health issues and eventually diseases arise when the smooth flow of Qi is disrupted. With the insertion of tiny sterile needles (about the width of 2 hairs) at specific points along the meridians, the flow of Qi is restored and brought back to a place of balance. “Balance” will look different for everyone, and the beauty of this kind of work is the ability to bring the body, mind and emotions back to a place of wellbeing, powerfully but not invasively. There are no debilitating side effects to treatment, and across the board people feel happier, more energetic and vibrant and better able to cope with daily or chronic stress while their symptoms also improve. All of the major concerns mentioned around Sickle Cell Disease can be supported, nourished and improved with acupuncture treatment, as the 12 main pathways that run through the body correspond to the organs as we define them in Western medicine. The stimulation of acupuncture points actually leads to the release of endorphins, morphine-like chemicals produced by the brain that help decrease pain and increase positive feelings.
Specific points can increase blood production and kidney function, settle and nourish the heart when anxiety and depression are present, support the lungs in the oxygenation of blood and assist the spleen in the important roles of producing and controlling the blood (preventing hemorrhage). All the pathways connect to one another in some form or another, and there are important relationships between and among them. By accessing the Qi of one, the whole body is nourished directly or indirectly through these connections. Even in the face of unchangeable conditions, there are ways to tend our bodies and minds so that we are better able to cope with uncertainties and improve the physical damage that comes with certain disease patterns. The more tuned in we are to what nourishes us and what depletes us, the better we can help our bodies and minds stay vibrant and strong despite conditions beyond our control.