Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Updated July 1, 2004





The Importance of Bodywork -
Back to Basics IV
By Jennifer Moffit, MS, LAc, Dip. OM

The Importance of Bodywork

We've been exploring the importance of the basics of self-care during the summer months, to maximize the benefits to your health. If you remember our last few columns, the primary focus has been on qi, the body's vital energy, and how to cultivate more of it from the food we eat and drink and our daily lifestyle. You already know the body uses vital energy for all its physiologic processes, such as endocrine functions, cellular function, and especially the healing process.

The importance of bodywork as a part of general maintenance cannot be overstated, and the topic is so vast I almost don't know where to begin. First, let's clarify what I mean by bodywork: chiropractic, therapeutic massage, acupuncture and oriental massage, bioenergetics, feldenkrais, and yoga therapy are just the tip of the body-work iceberg and play an important role in both the healing process and general preventive maintenance.

In the beginning…

One of the basic tenets in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is the adage "Where there is blockage, there is pain." We learned it on our first day of graduate school, and continued to hear it throughout. From the standpoint of TCM, whenever the free-flowing nature of qi is blocked or moved from its natural course, it will accumulate and cause pain or internal disease. To keep things simple, we will discuss a few basic reasons for this: excess, deficiency and stasis/stagnation.

You may find it helpful to keep in mind the idea of a streambed for this principle. Picture, if you will, a mountain stream with ample water running through it so that the water moves freely, and is clean, clear; it stays within its natural boundaries, and it is fresh - nourishing to what surrounds it. This is a good metaphor for the movement of qi through the body in the absence of disease. Now a river at the end of the summer or during times of drought has less volume moving in the creek bed; it pools up in places because there is not enough water to push through the rocks, due to a deficiency. When water pools, it becomes stagnant (with all the bugs and scum floating on the top).

Now translate this principle into the human body: when there is a deficiency of qi so that there is not enough to flow through its natural course, it will pool and stagnate. If left unattended, it will accumulate to cause pain or disease (maybe that is our layer of scum at the top of the pool…)

Similarly, a creek bed in the springtime after the snowmelt will often overflow the banks, with water flooding outside the normal course. This is due to too much water flowing through the riverbed, causing flooding and damage to the surrounding area. This also results in stagnation - only this time due to an excess, which also will cause pain or disease if left unattended.

The purpose of regular bodywork is to ensure that the body's vital energy moves in its proper direction, that there is enough of it so that things do not pool up and become stagnant, or overflow and cause 'flooding.' How much and what type of bodywork to get may seem confusing, but there are some general concepts to keep in mind that may be helpful when exploring this for the first time.

Structural Integrity

Fans of Star Trek (my favorite analogy) will have heard about 'structural integrity' in terms of the ship staying in one piece. Our physical body is similar to the Enterprise - it is the vessel for our travels though time and space. In this case, I define structural problems as musculoskeletal (and joints). The large muscle groups support the alignment of the body: the quadriceps, periformis, psoas, and hamstrings support the alignment of the pelvis, the erector spinae on either side of the spinal column help maintain the spine in its proper curvature, shoulder and cervical muscles connect in the neck region. While it may be obvious that sprain/strain, insufficient exercise, injury and trauma will cause these muscle groups to move out of balance (resulting in inflammation and pain), you may not understand that it also takes qi or vital energy to hold bones and muscles in their proper alignment, not just strength and flexibility. It is how someone with a TCM diagnosis of kidney deficiency may have mild low back pain as a symptom. The vital energy of the kidneys (separate from Kidney organ function) help to strengthen that area of the body. It is also why someone with an excess of liver qi may experience sharp pain down the sides of the legs - the energetics of this organ influence this region of the body. Because a long-term deficiency or excess can result in a structural problem even in the absence of an injury, regular bodywork is essential to maintaining structural integrity.

In my private practice, I use acupuncture and oriental medicine to regulate qi flow, since it is wonderful for relieving the pain of stagnation whether it caused by excess or deficiency (usually things are a mixture of both). We build up the body when there is not enough "water" moving through the stream, and drain areas when there is too much. Generally, my patients with chronic back pain often require a structural adjustment from a chiropractor followed by deep tissue massage or acupuncture to breakup the scar tissue or muscle tension that moved the vertebrae out to begin with. The muscles of the body have memory - and it takes time and physical manipulation to coax them back into proper alignment, and relieve the pain of inflammation.

How quickly someone responds to treatment is a mixture of things:

  • How long have you had the condition?
  • How severe is the problem?
  • How healthy were you to begin with? Do you have an underlying internal condition that hampers your recovery?
  • Are you willing to take supportive measures such as yoga and strength training to prevent recurrences?

For patients who are particularly deficient from chronic endocrine disorder such as hypothyroid or diabetes, immuno-compromised, or undergoing multiple drug regimens, it will take longer to experience physical relief because the body is often too weak to hold itself together properly for any length of time. It is why you may feel really good for a day or two after a treatment, only to find the body returning to the old pattern a few days later. Rest assured it is a good sign - your body is responding to treatment. The muscles have just not healed enough to stay in their proper position.

A good rule of thumb is to allow one month of regular treatment (regular meaning 2x per week) for every month you have had the condition. Multiple modalities, such as massage with acupuncture and chiropractic will generally yield faster results that are more complete, because you are addressing several aspects at the same time - bones (chiropractic), muscles (deep tissue massage), pain/ inflammation/ weakness and atrophy (acupuncture and oriental medicine) .

A Word about Stress

Stress has become a dirty word outside both inside and out of the medical community, and seems to be considered largely a mental phenomenon by both physicians and lay-persons alike. Stress is usually associated with negative experiences such as job, the daily commute, the loss of a family member, etc., culminating in acts of violence at the post-office. To add insult to injury, western medicine lists as a mental-emotional disorder, which implies psychosomatic or all-in-your-head type symptoms. For most, the association is not a pleasant one.

Stress, however, is not just a mental experience and is not related to whether you enjoy an experience or not - it is a physiological process that happens at the cellular level that affects endocrine balance and cellular chemistry (remember hormones such as adrenaline, epinephrine, nor-epinephrine? 1 There are dozens). And if you have been following this series of articles (and reading all the footnotes!) then you have started to figure out my basic theme: all these processes (sleep, diet, nutrition, endocrinology, bodywork, etc.) are inter-connected - they affect each other and they affect the amount of vital energy available to the body.

Let's start with the basic premise that if you live on planet earth, then stress is part of the package. Even if you are healthy, pain-free, and love everything about your life, you will still experience levels of physiological (e.g. cellular) stress that can, over time, have a large impact on your health. 2 If you have a chronic disease or suffer from chronic pain, be aware that you will be even more susceptible physiologically to stress than the average person. I repeatedly treat high-powered businessmen and women who are very successful, love what they do, and who insist that they don't have stress. (Meanwhile, their eyes are bugging out of their heads, and their bodies have broken down to the point of excruciating pain - but they don't have stress).


The reason I bring up the topic of stress is because many people think of massage and acupuncture as a 'feel good' tool to promote relaxation and alleviate stress. As luck would have it, stress reduction seems to be one area where medical doctors are actually willing to refer for acupuncture. Don't discount the impact that daily stress will have on the physical body, even in the absence of a serious illness.

Poly-pharmacy is not the way…

I find it disheartening that many of my patients with pain issues have consulted with their primary care physicians (PCPs), only to be sent home with a potent mixture of medications - usually some combination of Vicodin, Percocet, and Flexeril. Not only does it usually leave them too medicated for daily living, but it does virtually nothing to treat the cause of the condition. Please be advised that many MDs do this with the best of intentions - they have been trained that most conditions, if left well enough alone, will spontaneously resolve themselves within 2 years. (We were taught that in our curriculum as well). In addition, individuals who are motivated to seek additional care are strongly discouraged by their PCPs about the 'dangers' of alternative therapies. This is extremely unfortunate. In my clinical experience, most people with structural problems do NOT recover spontaneously, and, in fact, get worse when untreated.
Rest assured, there is care available for structural problems - no one need live in pain all the time, and quality care from a qualified licensed professional will often dramatically speed the healing process. I don't know anyone who has 2 years to hang around and wait.

It is up to you as the health care consumer to develop a bold attitude toward your health care and your body: become your own scientist and begin to explore all the possibilities available! Alternative medicine is not the mysterious place it used to be - there are thousands of qualified licensed professionals who are available to render aid. If you don't like the first practitioner or modality you try, try again. Ask friends and family for practitioners with whom they have experienced true healing; discuss you concerns with your provider. Be aware that many medical doctors have not learned the art of self-care themselves - they often take extremely poor care of themselves, so they may not be able to advise you in this area. There are good, mediocre, and poor practitioners in every profession, and it sometimes takes a little effort to find the right person to work with. But for the thousand of people in this country who have been given their lives back by acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy et al., the search has been well worth it.

Feel free to contact me directly at


1. Pathophysiology of the Endocrine System

2. A good example of this can be seen when looking at the statistics for female skydivers. Professionals who average hundreds of jumps have a 50% greater chance of becoming hypothyroid in their lifetime. The exact reason for this remains unclear, but basic endocrinology tells us that even if you love the experience of jumping out of an airplane, it violates our basic preservation instinct, and the body regularly dumping high amounts of adrenaline into the system (hence the rush). Adrenal burnout is seen as one of the causative factors in clinical hypothyroidism.

Join the PulseMed mailing list
About The PULSE
All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.

Copyright 1999-2074, Pulse Media International, Brian Carter, MSci, LAc, Editor