What your toes and elbows reveal about the state of your gastro-intestinal tract

Some of the most common complaints to be seen in clinic arise from irritation or inflammation of the stomach, intestines and bowel. Often it will be clear what the problem is.  For example, if there is acid reflux, or burning pain (mild or intense) in the area just below the breast bone (epigastrium), and the patient notices the pain after consuming certain foods or drinks, then they may have what western medicine calls gastritis or even an ulcer.

When the patient doesn’t have these more obvious symptoms there will still be a range of others – as recognised by Chinese Medicine – to help inform a diagnosis and treatment plan, including: a reddish complexion, mouth ulcers, thirst for cold liquids, a red patch in the centre of the tongue, halitosis, a tendency to constipation or loose stools with burning sensation and odour, or haemorrhoids. Chinese medicine calls these signs and symptoms ‘Heat’ or even ‘Fire’. Of course, if these are the only symptoms the patient has and they are mild, or periodic, then they will not normally cause someone enough concern to seek treatment.  However, a change in circumstances, such as pregnancy, can often exacerbate symptoms like these and the result is nausea, heartburn and constipation (in other words, morning sickness) for 12 weeks or more.

The more chronic (longstanding or severe) the condition is, the more pronounced the symptoms will be, and the more likely there will be additional and unusual ones. For example, chronic irritation/inflammation of the bowel can give rise to pain in the teeth or teeth grinding at night, boils on the low back/sacral area, or on the face. Chinese Medicine attributes such symptoms to the spread of ‘heat’ or ‘fire’ to other parts of the body through the channel system.

Detecting the problem of irritation/inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract is partly accomplished by asking the patient detailed questions, but can quickly be confirmed by pressing the tissue on the foot between the second and third toes, and about a centimetre or so back from the web margin of the toes. This spot is the beginning of the Stomach channel and it runs the length of the body, passing over the gums and ending just above the cheek. When the stomach, intestines or bowel are irritated/inflamed, this spot will be tender when pressed firmly.  Generally speaking, the more severe the irritation/inflammation, the more tender the spot will be.  Similarly, a spot on the forearm (on the Large Intestine channel), and near the crook of the elbow, will be tender and there will be lumps the size of chickpeas if there is inflammation in the bowel causing constipation or diarrhoea.   An area of several centimetres on tummy (between the breast bone and umbilicus) can be tender and have either a feeling of grittiness just under the skin, or a chain of large, soft lumps much like marshmallows.

So, what can Chinese Medicine offer by way of treatment for these problems?

As ever, the answer depends largely on the nature and severity of the problem. For example, in conditions like gastritis or acid reflux, and where the irritation is mild, the advice is simple – stop consuming whatever causes the irritation! The main culprits are food and drink such as citrus fruits, orange juice, spicy foods, coffee and alcohol. Drinking soothing liquids such as mint tea, or Aloe Vera juice, can be very helpful. Smoking is also a major factor in stomach irritation, as is stress.  Generally, I have not found acupuncture to be especially helpful for smoking cessation, but it is extremely effective for treating stress.

If the ‘heat’ is longstanding and there are problems with the complexion and boils, treatment with acupuncture can be highly effective. In more chronic and serious conditions, such as Ulcerative Colitis, the condition itself can’t be cured but the more unusual symptoms, such as teeth grinding at night, can.   In severe cases, treatment with Chinese herbs may also be required to bring under control more complicated and stubborn symptoms.

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