Qi Gong and Illness


    “Doc, since youve started practicing QiGong, have your migranes improved?”

    “all illness will go when you have enough chi”

    “My understanding is that the illness would go away if you restore a balanced Chi flow. Im no expert, but I used to have Migranes about 2-3 times a year, I hav only been practicing for about 2 months so i cant really say, but it sounds like a Yin Yang energy dis-harmony. Practice Chi Kung ( qigong ) to restore the harmonius flow ! But, not from a book find a Sifu or competent instructor.”

    “Chi Kung is great; I look forward to practice, except maybe somedays stance training seems a bit painfull !”

     “So come on, spill the beens Doc; hows it going with the 'Art of Energy' ?”

OK, I guess you’re gonna force me into starting a firestorm of shit here now.

Having two to three migraines a year is unfortunate, as I well know the pain and other sequelae that are associated with them. I know them all too well at this point. But, not to diminish anybody’s concept of suffering, two to three episodes a year doesn’t exactly occur frequently enough to be able to show a difference when one starts a new treatment modality. That is, unless you start investigating that individual over a period of many, many years. Statistically, it would take that long to develop some sort of relevance. Having migraines is bad enough, but feel fortunate that you only get them that infrequently.

I started getting them a little over four years ago, the result of a serious car accident. I had never had them before, so the whole concept of migraine was kind of new to me, with the exception of what I had learned in medical school. I assure you, what you learn in medical school, and what you learn as a patient, are really, two very different things.  But, that’s a completely different story.

My migraine condition was a fairly serious one, the details of which I won’t get into. But one of the problems that I had, was its damn resistance to treatment to all of the usual, and experimental, western medicine modalities. And the side effects to the western medications ranged from minimal and annoying to dangerous and life threatening. I was in an interesting situation; I was a highly trained physician and specialist, who was getting terribly disgusted with western medicine. Clearly I had to do something, as I was not getting better with the medicine that I had devoted my life to. I returned to the temple.

It’s all very bizarre, as I look back on it now, but, it’s one hell of a story. My return trip to the temple was primarily for qi gong training, and, for rehab. The monks did a great job of taking care of me. I had also spent some time in Beijing training in acupuncture with some TCM professors. By the time I got home, I had added a small flavor of traditional oriental medicine to my classically trained medical repertoire. I had also made significant personal improvements towards “getting better”.

I had studied about this “qi” stuff quite a bit, both while over there on my many trips, and, here back in the US, on my own. I’ve got my own opinions about all of it, which, if I ever sat down and wrote about them, would take up far too much space here in the Discussion forum. And I’ve heard all the stories, the ones about the qi gong master who bends spoons on television, the one who practices telekinesis, and the one who heals people. Hell, I even trained with one qi gong master for a while, who, upon my next return, was supposed to train me in the art of using qi to heal other people. I first had to continue working my own qi, before I could get to that next level. Well, I continued working my qi, but I never continued with the lessons. I have my limits too.

And I’ve seen countless demonstrations of qi gong exercises. One of my good friends, and trainers, Shi Xing Xi, is renowned for his hard qi gong skills. We trained on a daily basis when I was in China last. And yes, he’s good. He’s physically fit, and very skilled and powerful. But he doesn’t bend spoons, move things, or heal people, a fact which I’m thankful for. You see, there’s a fine line, in my mind, between reality and circus. And when we talk about stuff like qi and qi gong, we have to make sure that we remain in reality, and don’t end up in the circus. Shi Xing Xi remains in reality; some of the rest of these guys, with their claims of prowess, start drifting towards the middle ring.

So, does it work? Good question. No doubt I’m going to catch a lot of shit on this one.

Practicing qi gong has done nothing for diminishing the occurrence, frequency, or sequelae of my migraine syndrome. Now you can feel free to attribute that to the fact that I have no qi. (I just knew there was a reason….) Or, attribute it to the fact that I don’t work my qi gong practice enough. Or, attribute it to the fact that qi gong just doesn’t heal people of serious illness. (Now, this really is another story, and you don’t want to get me started on this one. Well, maybe you do….) And, you wonder, just what is the occurrence of my migraines? I mean, statistically, how relevant of an experiment am I?

Pretty damn relevant. I get migraines on a daily basis.

In fact, there are some, if not many, days in which I am not pain free at all. Sleep is my only respite. And acupuncture. I absolutely refuse to use narcotics. (And if you were wondering why I was squinting in those pictures, or, had my eyes closed in anticipation of the “flash cube of death”, or, constantly had sunglasses with me, now you know why. I’m also terribly photosensitive).

The daily practice of qi gong has not healed me, sorry to say. However, using qi gong, especially the Ba Duan Jin qi gong, has been effective towards diminishing the severity of my migraines, once I have them. It has been relatively useless as a preventative measure, therefore, in my mind, it is relatively useless as a healing agent.

Now, you’re probably wondering, if it does diminish the severity of the actual migraine, it must be altering qi, and healing, to some degree. Well, I don’t agree with that. We’re talking about a lot of factors here. The practice of qi gong affects breathing, which, in turn, affects blood chemistry, which, also in turn, has a direct effect upon the cerebral vasculature. Returning the cerebral vasculature to a more normal state is paramount in the treatment of migraine; remember, the cause of migraine is an alteration in cerebral (brain) blood flow. Plus, the practice of qi gong tends to have a pretty serious meditative effect upon oneself; the relaxation that one derives is tremendous. Now, some physicians believe that migraine is caused by muscle tension around the head and neck area, and that is caused by stress. I don’t believe it. I feel, now that I’m a ‘relative expert’ with this shit, that migraine is aggravated, or, can be caused by, stress, but that the muscle spasm of the head and neck area is just an associated feature, and not the causative agent of the migraine. Regardless, reducing stress will help diminish migraine to some degree; practicing qi gong can therefore be helpful for that reason.

Now, notice that I say “it is relatively useless as a healing agent”. I say this for a reason. And that reason is, I’m still not sure. We can talk about this on many levels, from the spiritual one, whereby “qi runs throughout the body and is its life-force”, to a more technical or scientific one, whereby “qi has no scientific foundation and is therefore bullshit”. And, there are many levels in between. I’ve spoken on this before, somewhere else in the site, so I won’t belabor the point again. But I’ll keep it simple, for this little discourse, by just using examples. Let’s start with the scientific level, the technical way of looking at this.

I use acupuncture to treat my migraines, and quite frankly, it works far better than any medication I’ve ever tried. As long as I hit the points correctly. (Yes, I do it myself). Now, acupuncture is not exactly a “do anywhere” type of remedy, not like meditation, or, even, some portions of Ba Duan Jin qi gong. No, sitting in a restaurant with needles sticking out of your face is bad form.  I just don’t recommend it. But, if you’re ever in Las Vegas, and you see this big squinting guy in a dimly lit quiet restaurant late at night, rubbing his temple with one finger, he’s basically doing the same thing. Acupressure works almost as well as acupuncture. Similar technical qi basis. Manipulation of the meridians to redirect the flow of qi. Now, the educated culturati of Vegas, both of them, recognize what I’m doing when I do it; the rest of the people here just think I’m trying to bore a hole in my head with my finger because I probably lost too much money at the craps table.  How does it really work? And yes, it really does work. Let’s get into that.

I’m not a big fan of the whole “qi flowing around the meridians” stuff. We never found them during anatomy lessons in medical school, though, quite interestingly, the “acupoint finder” that one of the TCM professors gave me, does accurately pinpoint each acupoint with precision. It works by uncovering areas of decreased electrical resistance on the skin overlying the acupoint. So, one might theorize, that these acupoints do in fact exist. There probably are little nexuses of nerve endings in these areas.

Now, whether qi actually exists, is another question. I won’t go there. I will say that the use of acupressure or acupuncture, and especially acupuncture with electrical stimulation, causes the release of beta endorphins in the brain. Beta endorphins are nature’s natural narcotics, that the brain synthesizes and releases for various reasons. Long distance runners start releasing these after a while, and the eventually failure to continue to run results in a decrease in these substances, which actually causes them to undergo a bit of withdrawal. Thus, the so-called “runner’s high” that one gets after exercise, and the “feeling like shit” phenomena when one doesn’t exercise. You also get this in other sports. The use of acupuncture has been found to release these endogenous narcotics within the brain. So, it is not a stretch of the imagination to visualize the use of acupuncture as being a successful venue towards treating chronic pain, if it is applied correctly.

But there is a spiritual aspect to all of this too. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. One of the TCM professors had told me years ago, that I needed to spend a lot of time in Shaolin, because “the place is full of qi”. Well, I won’t exactly say that when I’m there, that I “feel it”, but, one does feel “something” when one is there. There is something magical about the place, something mystical, something that brings one back year after year. And I just don’t know what it is.

So, with regards to qi, I try to approach it with a scientific mind, mainly because that’s how I’ve been trained. But, having been to Shaolin too many times now, I’m almost forced to set aside a bit of that scientific training, and allow a portion of my mind to remain open. I’ve yet to be convinced of the mysticism of qi, but I’m open to hear the arguments.

And as for the question of whether qi gong cures migraines, or, the question that I think that you’re going to ask next, and that is, does qi gong cure chronic illness, well, the answer, in my opinion, is no.

Yes, without a doubt, the annual returns to Shaolin have had a hugely beneficial effect upon me, both with respect towards my martial arts skills and my health in general. The monks have definitely done their job, and have done it well. But no, I am far from cured. I still deal with this blight that has been stricken upon me; and no qi gong practice, nor any western medicine, has been effective in removing it from my life. What Shaolin, gong fu, and qi gong has been effective in doing, has been in changing my attitude. Now, I realize that most people who frequent this forum are fairly young, healthy guys, who are fairly heavy into the martial arts, and exercise in general. Chronic illness, and exposure to people with such, is just not something that most of you are probably going to have to deal with. You’re very fortunate. Dealing with the so-called chronic pain patient (yet another story…), is an interesting, and difficult phenomena, one in which modern western medicine has basically thrown up its little hands in disgust and frustration over. These are tough patients to deal with; and, as patients, “doctors are tough idiots to deal with”. Oh, what a phenomenon. The long and the short of it is, there are basically two ways a chronic pain, or, a chronically ill individual, can go. Up, or down. They either get better, or they get worse. And, quite frankly, it usually has nothing to do with the course of the illness itself.

It has to do with attitude. It all has to do with how one deals with things.

I’ll never forget one very cold October morning in Shaolin, when a German friend of mine, who was training in the village, came to me and asked me to do a so-called “house call”. His master, a young Chinese boy in his early twenties, was very ill. So, I agreed to make a visit, and we left immediately, for what ended up being a small brick hut, up in the mountains, lit, and heated by, a sole small light bulb. It was readily apparent to me what the young man’s problem was. He was plagued by headaches, from what my German friend told me, and after multiple visits to the local village Chinese doctor, who basically just told him to “go home”, the young master agreed to meet with me. Ironically, this young man was suffering from some pretty nasty migraines, just as I was. I examined him, and felt that there was nothing more serious than that. I gave him medications, and suggested that he take it easy for the rest of the day. Hell, that’s what I did when had really bad days.

So much for western medical advice. All those years of training out the veritable window. He thanked me profusely for visiting with me, and then decided that he would train that day, first starting by running up the mountain, as he did on a daily basis, and then, with the usual gong fu workout. Despite the killer migraine, that I so readily recognized, and identified with. And that was when I had learned my first lesson about attitude. Chinese stoicism. You can’t beat it.

And no, when you have to live with an illness, you live with it. You just have to adjust your attitude. That is, in my opinion, the key towards helping those with chronic pain and illness. Qi gong and gong fu may not take away the disease, (though, without a doubt, it will help one live a healthier life, which, will probably help towards preventing disease), but it will help with attitude.

And attitude is one of the most important aspects of life, especially when you’re little box of chocolates has melted a bit.