The Cause of Pain and Illness: Qi Stagnation

What causes pain and illness? These are the big questions that we ask when we’re unwell –why did this happen? What could I have done to prevent it? There are rarely simple answers to questions like these, and when someone comes to me in clinic, especially someone with a chronic condition, there are many factors at play. But in this week’s blog I’d like to talk about one of the big causes: Qi stagnation.

What is Qi? And How Can It Get “Stagnant”?

OK, quick breakdown of terms. Qi doesn’t get translated into English because there really isn’t a good equivalent. Sometimes we translate it as “energy”, but that’s not accurate. The Chinese character for Qi shows steam rising, which is a metaphor for Qi: it’s a force that exists, but is usually invisible and intangible. Another way of describing Qi is that it is the functions of the body systems, rather than their physical structure, such as the rate of metabolic processes rather than the cells and organs where they happen, or the electrical conduction along nerves rather than the nerves themselves. So the term “Qi” is used to talk about all those processes that are absolutely real and necessary for our bodies to function, but that you can’t see by dissecting a body or looking under a microscope. You can only see it by observing it in action.

Depending on what kind of physiological process we’re talking about, it might not make sense to you to think about it being “stagnant”. But when we look at the bigger picture of the whole body, we can see when things are not functioning as smoothly as they should. Bodies are designed to move, from the macro level of physical exercise right down to the microscopic level of cellular respiration. If any of these processes fail to happen efficiently, the system will get jammed or stagnant, and the tissues will accumulate waste products instead of excreting them. Once those waste products pile up, the system as a whole won’t be able to function optimally, and eventually symptoms will appear.

Like with much of the terminology in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it can sound totally weird and airy fairy until you understand what it’s really talking about. In the absence of microscopes or dissection, physicians and scholars in ancient China keenly observed the human body in action during sickness and good health, and then, being from a culture that so highly valued poetry, created metaphors to describe the changes they saw.  The fact that this medicine has transferred so well to other countries and cultures shows the universality of the changes they observed, and once you know how to identify it, you’ll be able to easily tell when it’s happening in your own body too.

How Can I Tell If I Have Qi Stagnation?

One of the number one symptoms of Qi stagnation is pain. Different kinds of pain can indicate more specific types of imbalance, but basically, as the old Chinese saying goes:

“Bu Tong Zi Tong, Zi Tong Bu Tong”
“Where there is pain, there is no free flow.
Where there is free flow, there is no pain.”

To get more specific than that, we have to talk about the Liver, and here again we get into the problems of studying a subject in translation. You might notice that I capitalised the word liver, which we often do in TCM to distinguish the TCM definition of the Liver from the anatomical liver. When we talk about the organs in TCM, we’re not just talking about the physical organ, but also a group of physiological processes that have been assigned to it. As with the concept of Qi, this is a metaphor based on observation, which forms a functional model that we can use to diagnose and treat illness. And, just like in chemistry, the model is not real, but it is a useful tool in talking about complex systems.

Qi stagnation is like a dam in a river. Free flow of Qi is essential for good health, just like free-flowing water is essential for a healthy river system.

Qi stagnation is like a dam in a river. Free flow of Qi is essential for good health, just like free-flowing water is essential for a healthy river system.

So, the Liver is in charge of keeping the Qi flowing smoothly throughout the body. When the Liver is functioning sub-optimally, the Qi will stop flowing freely and get stagnant, giving us the pattern we refer to as “Liver Qi Stagnation”. If you’ve gone to see an acupuncturist and asked what’s wrong, there’s a good chance that they’ll talk about Liver Qi Stagnation, because it’s so common and it’s fundamental to many illnesses.

OK, here’s the fun part: I’m going to list the textbook symptoms of Liver Qi Stagnation, and then I’m going to bet $10 bucks that you’ve felt this way at some point in your life, and probably quite regularly.

So here’s how it feels: you get cranky and irritable. You take deep, exasperated sighs. You feel despondent and depressed. Your chest, breasts, or the sides of your ribs might hurt. Your abdomen might feel distended or painful. If you’re female, you’ll likely have either painful or irregular periods.

Does this sound familiar to you? If you’ve ever felt frustrated or short-tempered, coupled with a feeling of tension or stuckness in your body, you’ve experienced Liver Qi Stagnation. Often, when we say we’re feeling stressed, what we mean is some variation on these symptoms. And it’s a vicious cycle, because stress is a major cause of Liver Qi Stagnation, which is why it’s such a common pattern in modern life.

Moving Liver Qi: the Solution to Pain and an Essential Part of Any Wellness Plan

OK, first, let’s not insult anyone suffering from chronic pain by pretending that there’s a simple solution. Once a condition has really taken root, it’s no simple matter to heal it. However, on an everyday level, learning to keep your Liver Qi moving smoothly is essential to preventing and healing both physical pain and emotional stress. This is the key mechanism that makes practices like mindfulness meditation, yoga and Tai Chi so effective at pain and stress management.

There’s so much to explore here, and in next week’s blog I’ll be delving deep into what cause Liver Qi Stagnation and how we can learn to prevent it, but in the meantime I’m going to give you the two basic tools you’ll need.

  1. Move your body. There’s been a ton of research done on how good exercise is for your health. You can say it’s because of the endorphins it releases, or you can say it’s because it moves your Liver Qi. Either way, physical activity, whether fast or slow, is one of the best things you can do for your health. Your body is designed to move. Don’t let it stagnate.
  2. Calm your mind. Frustration and anger are symptoms of Liver Qi Stagnation, but they’re also causes. Now, here’s the tricky part: just ignoring or suppressing those feelings is only going to make things worse, so please don’t try to bully yourself into positive thinking. However, learning to manage these feelings effectively is hugely important in maintaining good health. Learn to take control of circling thoughts that are stressing you out. Take a few deep breaths instead of losing your temper. Go for a walk or run instead of sitting there stewing about something. There are lots of techniques for gaining control over mental patterns like these, and without active intervention our minds often run rampant, so find a system that works well for you.

As always, Keep It Simple Sweetheart!

Your health ally,


Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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