Joint stiffness according to Chinese Medicine

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Joint stiffness can be the consequence of several so-called “patterns of disharmony” in Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine sees the body as a system, not a sum of isolated parts. A "pattern" is when the system's harmony is disrupted, leading to symptoms or signs that something is wrong (like joint stiffness here). It is similar to the concept of disease in Western Medicine but not quite: a Western disease can often be explained by several Chinese patterns and vice-versa.

A pattern often manifests itself in a combination of symptoms that, at first glance, do not seem necessarily related to each others. For instance here joint stiffness is often associated with joint pain and swollen joints in the pattern “Dampness invading the Channels joints and muscles”. As you will see below, we have in record five patterns that can cause joint stiffness.

Once identified, patterns are treated using medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and other therapies. In the case of joint stiffness we’ve identified five herbal formulas that may help treat patterns behind the symptom.

We’ve also selected below the five medicinal herbs that we think are most likely to help treat joint stiffness.

The five "patterns of disharmony" that can cause joint stiffness

In Chinese Medicine joint stiffness is a symptom for 5 patterns that we have on record. Below is a small explanation for each of them with links for more details.

Dampness invading the Channels joints and muscles

Pulse type(s): Slow (Chi), Soggy (Ru)

In addition to joint stiffness, other symptoms associated with Dampness invading the Channels joints and muscles include joint pain and swollen joints.

Dampness invading the Channels joints and muscles is often treated with Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang, a herbal formula made of 16 herbs (including Dong Quai - Dang Gui - as a key herb). Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that invigorate blood and dispel blood stagnation", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Expels Wind Damp from the Channels".

Read more about Dampness invading the Channels joints and muscles here

Cold invading the Channels joints and muscles

Pulse type(s): Tight (Jin), Floating (Fu)

In addition to joint stiffness, other symptoms associated with Cold invading the Channels joints and muscles include joint pain, swollen joints and numbness of the muscles.

Cold invading the Channels joints and muscles is often treated with Wu Tou Tang, a herbal formula made of 6 herbs (including Prepared Sichuan Aconite - Zhi Chuan Wu - as a key herb). Wu Tou Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that warm the meridians and disperse cold", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Warms the channels and remove obstruaction".

Read more about Cold invading the Channels joints and muscles here

Heat invading the Channels joints and muscles

Pulse type(s): Rapid (Shu), Slippery (Hua)

In addition to joint stiffness, other symptoms associated with Heat invading the Channels joints and muscles include swollen joints, fever and anxiety.

Heat invading the Channels joints and muscles is often treated with Xuan Bi Tang, a herbal formula made of 9 herbs (including Stephania Roots - Fang Ji - as a key herb). Xuan Bi Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that dispel wind-damp", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Clears and resolves Damp-Heat".

Read more about Heat invading the Channels joints and muscles here

Painful Obstruction Syndrome

Pulse type(s): Tight (Jin), Wiry (Xian)

In addition to joint stiffness, other symptoms associated with Painful Obstruction Syndrome include joint pain, swollen joints and stiff neck.

Painful Obstruction Syndrome is often treated with Wu Tou Tang, a herbal formula made of 6 herbs (including Prepared Sichuan Aconite - Zhi Chuan Wu - as a key herb). Wu Tou Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that warm the meridians and disperse cold", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Warms the channels and remove obstruaction".

Read more about Painful Obstruction Syndrome here

Phlegm in the Channels joints and muscles

Pulse type(s): Choppy (Se), Wiry (Xian)

The bone deformities that occur in chronic rheumatoid arthritis are seen as a form of Phlegm.

In addition to joint stiffness, other symptoms associated with Phlegm in the Channels joints and muscles include numbness of the muscles, muscle pain and numbness in the limbs.

Phlegm in the Channels joints and muscles is often treated with Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang, a herbal formula made of 12 herbs (including Peach Kernels - Tao Ren - as a key herb). Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that regulate blood", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Invigorates Blood".

Read more about Phlegm in the Channels joints and muscles here

Five herbal formulas that might help with joint stiffness

Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang

Source date: 1587 AD

Number of ingredients: 16 herbs

Key actions: Expels Wind Damp from the Channels. Invigorates Blood. Unblocks the channels.

Why might Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang help with joint stiffness?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Dampness invading the Channels joints and muscles' of which heavy joint is a symptom.

Read more about Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang here

Wu Tou Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 6 herbs

Key actions: Warms the channels and remove obstruaction. Disperse Cold and Dampness. Warms the joints. Relieve joints pain.

Why might Wu Tou Tang help with joint stiffness?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Cold invading the Channels joints and muscles' of which joint stiff is a symptom.

Read more about Wu Tou Tang here

Xuan Bi Tang

Source date: 1798 AD

Number of ingredients: 9 herbs

Key actions: Clears and resolves Damp-Heat. Unblocks the meridians. Disbands painful obstruction.

Why might Xuan Bi Tang help with joint stiffness?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Heat invading the Channels joints and muscles' of which joint stiff is a symptom.

Read more about Xuan Bi Tang here

Da Fang Feng Tang

Source date: 1107 AD

Number of ingredients: 14 herbs

Key actions: Expel Wind Damp. Relieve pain. Tonify the Liver and the Kidneys. Tonify the Blood and Qi.

Why might Da Fang Feng Tang help with joint stiffness?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Painful Obstruction Syndrome' of which joint stiff is a symptom.

Read more about Da Fang Feng Tang here

Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang

Source date: 1830

Number of ingredients: 12 herbs

Key actions: Invigorates Blood. Unblocks painful obstruction. Relieves pain. Invigorate Qi. Dispels Blood Stagnation. Unblock Channels.

Why might Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang help with joint stiffness?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Phlegm in the Channels joints and muscles' of which joint stiff is a symptom.

Read more about Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang here

Acupuncture points used for joint stiffness

The five Chinese Medicinal herbs most likely to help treat joint stiffness

Why might Liquorice (Gan Cao) help with joint stiffness?

Because Liquorice is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat joint stiffness as a symptom, like Wu Tou Tang or Da Fang Feng Tang for instance.

Liquorice is a Neutral herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Heart, the Lung, the Spleen and the Stomach.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Basal Qi and nourishes the Spleen Qi. Clears Heat and dispels toxicity. Moistens the Lungsexpel phlegm and stop coughing. Relieves spasms and alleviates pain. Harmonizes and moderates the effects of other herbs.

Read more about Liquorice here

Why might White Peony Root (Bai Shao) help with joint stiffness?

Because White Peony Root is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat joint stiffness as a symptom, like Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang or Wu Tou Tang for instance.

White Peony Roots is a Neutral herb that tastes Bitter and Sour. It targets the Liver and the Spleen.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Blood and preserves the Yin. Nourishes the Liver and assists in the smooth flow of Qi. Regulates the meridians and eases the pain.

Read more about White Peony Roots here

Why might Szechuan Lovage Root (Chuan Xiong) help with joint stiffness?

Because Szechuan Lovage Root is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat joint stiffness as a symptom, like Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang or Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang for instance.

Szechuan Lovage Roots is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent. It targets the Gallbladder, the Liver and the Pericardium.

Its main actions are: Regulates and moves the Blood. Relieves Wind-Cold and pain. Circulates the Qi in the Upper Burner, relieving headaches.

Read more about Szechuan Lovage Roots here

Why might Saposhnikovia Root (Fang Feng) help with joint stiffness?

Because Saposhnikovia Root is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat joint stiffness as a symptom, like Da Fang Feng Tang or Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang for instance.

Saposhnikovia Roots is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent and Sweet. It targets the Bladder, the Liver and the Spleen.

Its main actions are: Relieves the Exterior and disperses Cold. Relieves Wind-Damp-Cold painful obstruction. Disperses Wind.

Read more about Saposhnikovia Roots here

Why might Peach Kernel (Tao Ren) help with joint stiffness?

Because Peach Kernel is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat joint stiffness as a symptom, like Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang or Shu Jing Huo Xue Tang for instance.

Peach Kernels is a Neutral herb that tastes Bitter and Sweet. It targets the Heart, the Large intestine and the Liver.

Its main actions are: Moves Blood and breaks up Stasis. Moistens the Intestines. Relieves coughing.

Read more about Peach Kernels here