Plugged ducts - also called engorgement - is an incredibly common issue for breastfeeding women. In fact two third of breastfeeding women report experiencing plugged duct issues while breastfeeding1. It can be incredibly painful and, if left untreated, can degenerate into full-blown mastitis, an infection of the breast.
A plugged duct is generally easy to identify: you can see a swelled red spot on one of your breasts (or both) that is often painful to the touch. It generally feels more painful before a feeding, when your breasts are full of milk. You'll know if it has turned into mastitis if you start experiencing fever and flu-like aching, a sign that your body is fighting an infection.
However painful plugged ducts or mastitis can feel, it's important to never stop breastfeeding! It will only make the issue worse as your breasts will keep accumulating milk, leading to a bigger and more painful lump. Sadly many women give up on breastfeeding because of the pain associated with plugged ducts or mastitis. Despite the official World Health Organisation recommendation that a baby should be breastfed until the age of 2, only 50% of American infants are still breastfed at 6-month old2!
Plugged ducts are therefore a big public health issue: it contributes to millions of babies not being breastfed appropriately. This has devastating consequences as infants that are not breastfed appropriately are at risk of infectious morbidity, as well as elevated risks of childhood obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, leukemia, and sudden infant death syndrome3. The mother faces risks too: failure to breastfeed is associated with an increased incidence of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, retained gestational weight gain, type 2 diabetes, myocardial infarction, and the metabolic syndrome3.
All of this means that rather than quit breastfeeding, you need to find a solution to solve your plugged ducts issues. As we'll see modern medicine lacks credible solutions to treat plugged ducts, that's why more and more women turn to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM has for many centuries developed good solutions for women facing plugged duct or mastitis issues.
Modern medicine doesn't have credible solutions
Modern medicine is pretty powerless when it comes to treating plugged ducts. If you look online at medical websites they all recommend pretty much the same list of treatments:
- Application of warm or cold compressed to the breast. Some websites also recommend taking warm baths
- Application of a cabbage leaf on the clogged breast
- Increase of the frequency of breastfeeding sessions
- Change of breastfeeding position and prioritization of clogged breast
- Self-massage of the breasts
- Painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicine
Any woman who has tried a combination of the above "solutions" to treat their plugged ducts knows they might help a bit but they're far from being definite solutions. Few are the women who saw their plugged duct issues disappear after a warm bath or after having stuck a cabbage leaf on their breast!
Sadly this lack of effective solution leads many women to think that their plugged duct issues can never be solved. They therefore often choose to give up on breastfeeding out of fear that they'll have to face many months of continuing pain with their engorged breasts.
Does Traditional Chinese Medicine have a solution for plugged ducts?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remains largely unknown in the West and there are many misconceptions around it. At its core, TCM is a very natural way to cure oneself as TCM treatments always revolve around taking herbal teas, changing your diet or other soft-medicine practices such as acupuncture or Qigong.
TCM is still incredibly popular in China, especially for new moms. In fact the use of TCM has even gained in popularity among new moms in the past few years with the incredible rise of Yuezi clinics. Yuezi is a 42-day period right after birth during which everything you eat or drink is dictated by Chinese Medicine. Millions of Chinese women choose to sit Yuezi in dedicated clinics where they go straight from the hospital where they gave birth.
The first TCM treatments against plugged ducts and mastitis date as far back as the Han dynasty in 200BC. Some texts from this period remain where women with plugged ducts were recommended to treat themselves with herbal teas made with "dried bulbs of fritillary, snake gourd root, dandelions, dong quai root and licorice root". To this day, many TCM teas recommended against plugged ducts contain some of these same ingredients. Our own Unblock Nursing Tea also contain most of those ingredients as they've been used to treat plugged ducts successfully for close to 2500 years!
What's the TCM theory behind plugged ducts or mastitis? According to TCM, plugged ducts and mastitis are mainly due to a blockage of Qi and Blood. Qi is the "life force" giving life to all things (see full article explaining Qi here). Qi and Blood circulate in the human body via Meridians in order to power the functions of organs. Meridians follow well-defined paths: for instance the breasts are connected to the Stomach meridian while the nipples are connected to the Liver meridian. The flow of Qi and Blood can however sometimes get blocked. When that's the case, an accumulation of heat occurs because Qi is a very hot "substance" (i.e. it is "Yang" in nature, as opposed to Yin which is cold). And when an accumulation of heat occurs in a given spot that leads to swellings, red spots and, in worst cases, fever as is the case with mastitis.
Given that plugged ducts are due to a blockage of Qi and Blood that leads to an accumulation of heat, TCM aims to cure them by unblocking the obstruction and reducing the heat. This can be done with Chinese herbal medicine: typically a mix of plants that target the Liver and Stomach meridians (since they go through the breasts and nipples) and are cold in nature so as to reduce heat. Most Chinese herbal medicines that treat plugged ducts or mastitis will for instance contain dandelions because the plant is cold in nature and targets both the Stomach and Liver meridians, making it perfect for this purpose. Another common ingredient is licorice: it targets the Stomach meridian and is very effective in removing heat. Our own Unblock Nursing Tea contains both those ingredients, together with 10 others natural plants.
Please do not try to prepare your own Chinese herbal medicine: herbal remedies need to be prepared by professional TCM companies or individual practitioners. For instance taking dandelions on their own is unlikely to have much effect: in TCM herbs often only work when taken in combinations with others. A typical TCM herbal tea will contain at least 5 or 6 different plants and they each have a role to play (in our case, our own Unblock Nursing Tea has 12 ingredients that all work together). So please kindly go see a professional TCM practitioner who'll be able to put together an appropriate mix of plants to solve your plugged ducts issues. Alternatively you can also buy ready-made herbal teas prepared by professional TCM companies like us.
TCM theory also highlights the importance of continuing to breastfeed uninterrupted. In fact TCM texts often mention interruptions of breastfeeding or inconsistent breastfeeding as key causes for plugged ducts. Interrupting breastfeeding will lead to the milk already produced blocking the arrival of new milk, hence leading to a blockage. It is therefore critical that you breastfeed regularly and keep the same rhythm so your body learns when to produce milk.
1. Campbell S.H. Recurrent plugged ducts. J Hum Lact. 2006;22(3):340–343.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, August 22). 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card [Online report]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/2016breastfeedingreportcard.pdf
3. Stuebe A. The risks of not breastfeeding for mothers and infants. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2009;2(4):222–231.
Article tags: Breastfeeding and maternity Chinese herbal medicine