A Chinese Medicine Cautionary Tale

I have nobody to blame but myself for what happened.

The day was not sunny, but it was early June and I felt like taking a long bike ride. I knew that my body heats up while I’m out riding, so I dressed lightly in bike shorts and a t-shirt. When I stepped out my front door I noticed that it wasn’t as warm as I would have hoped, but I believed that once I got moving I would appreciate the cool breeze.

For the most part, I was right. The sun wasn’t strong enough to warm me, but it also wasn’t likely to overheat and tire me. As long as I kept in motion, the breeze cooled me without making me too chilly. It was overall pretty comfortable.

When I got to my destination, the Chicago Botanic Gardens, I locked my bike up while eyeing the sky. I hadn’t checked the weather and didn’t realize showers were likely, but the clouds were beginning to look ominous. I left my bike helmet attached to my seat in such a way that if it did rain, I hoped the drops would roll off the helmet and not wet my seat or the inside of the helmet. A for effort!

I actually spent a few minutes in the Garden’s gift shop contemplating whether to buy a sweatshirt since I don’t find walking around the gardens to be as warming as biking. I ultimately decided that the potential comfort wasn’t worth $80.

I enjoyed strolling the gardens for several hours. It did sprinkle and my shoulders got damp, but I didn’t get chilled and was able to shelter from the worst of the shower. By midafternoon I was dry and ready to head home again, since I had a couple hours’ ride ahead of me.

The first thing I realized when I got back to my bike was that both my helmet and my seat had gotten soaked. I wanted to wear the helmet despite the damp, and of course the seat wasn’t optional, so I began this ride with the potential for being a bit chilled.

In acupuncture school one thing that gets stressed a lot is “keeping your Tai Yang warm” and covered from drafts. Your Tai Yang includes the channels that pass up over the top of your head and down both sides of your spine, down the backs of both of your legs to your feet. It is said that if you allow cold to enter the Tai Yang you’ll come down with something like the common cold. In this story, my Tai Yang was compromised due to the almost-chilly temps all day plus now being a little chilled by the wind passing over my damp head and seat.

Fortunately, on my way home the sun came out and dried a lot of the ground and myself, and warmed my back and shoulders. I still felt as though I wanted a hot shower, so I washed my hair and had dinner. I was supposed to go to an outdoor event that evening and wanted my hair to be dry by then. Before I got dressed, I noticed my neck felt a bit of a pinch in it, so I did some gua sha on my right neck and shoulder.

Gua sha means “sand scraping.” It is used to soothe and release tight muscles and relieve pain, and consists of using a curved tool with some oil or lotion to scrape over the skin. You may also perform gua sha to relieve the “I’m coming down with something” achy sensation in the neck and shoulders that often heralds the onset of the common cold or flu. In acupuncture school, we were taught that this counted as “opening up the Tai Yang” and was not to be done if the patient was unable to keep the area warm and/or covered.

I knew it had gotten chillier out as the sun dropped lower, so I put on a sweatshirt and a very light scarf, but refused to wear long pants since it’s June. When I got outside I immediately regretted this, but not enough to go back and change. As I biked to my destination I tried to measure whether it really was warm enough to be comfortable sitting still. While in motion it was hard to decide.

After about an hour, I concluded that it really was a bit too cool and windy for me to be comfortable outdoors in my current outfit. I pedaled home again and put myself to bed.

When I woke up the next morning, I realized the error of my ways. Allowing myself to get chilled on an evening when I had exerted myself + opening my Tai Yang + already had a bit of a neck pinch led to being almost completely immobilized by neck pain! So what does an acupuncturist do in this situation?

The first thing I did, I’m not going to lie, was take 2 ibuprofen. Muscle relaxants can help!

  • Then I did some gentle neck stretches, going up, down, right, and left. I slowly rotated my shoulders. I did some rotational movements, standing with my feet hip-width apart and gently turning from side to side, allowing my arms and hands to swing and hit against my body. I did cat and cow poses from yoga. 
  • I listened to my neck pain, breathed into it, and asked my muscles to relax and allow more movement. I think one of the dangers here is to allow the muscles to tighten up because they hurt and they’re trying to save you from moving into painful positions. 
  • I did some cupping with silicone cups on my right shoulder and as far down my upper spine as I could reach, targeting areas that felt painful.

A few things I could have done differently include wearing a neck covering for my bike ride, dressing more warmly for my evening event, and avoiding the use of gua sha when I knew I had already been chilled (using stretching and self-massage instead to help with my stiff neck). The lesson I learned through this experience is that if I have doubts or think it might be too chilly, it probably is! Take good care of yourself after a period of exertion, keep warm, and call your acupuncturist if you run into trouble.

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