In this article, I want to discuss urinary tract infections (UTIs). Before jumping to the details, let's go over a few of the basics. This is a very common complaint among women. Because women's urinary tracts are shorter than men's, women tend to get UTIs more often than men do. The symptoms of an UTI can include itching, burning, redness, swelling, and yellow, strong-smelling and sometimes cloudy urine. An allopathic doctor will do a urine test to check for bacteria. In TCM, the diagnosis is often one of heat or damp heat in the urinary bladder or small intestine.
I have good success in treating UTIs with acupuncture and herbs. However what I want to focus on today is the success I have had treating UTIs incorporating the mind/body approach and what I call lifestyle counseling. The organ connection I find most relevant in UTIs is that of the heart and small intestine. We all learned that heart heat can be siphoned off by the small intestine and expressed through heat and/or damp-type urinary symptoms. I find this connection to be of primary relevance most of the time.
Usually the specific area in our body in which the problem occurs reflects the area in our life where we are having conflict and difficulties. You can look at the body part where the problem occurs and infer more about the nature of the problem. The large intestine is a good example of this. The large intestine in Chinese medicine is in charge of the elimination of solid waste. Symbolically, when we are having problems in letting go of things in our life that no longer serve us (e.g. emotional or mental waste) we can often suffer from constipation.
It is no coincidence that the UTI symptoms are all genitals. I mostly find the emotional conflicts surrounding UTIs happen around relationships, specifically relationships that involve sex. Any of us in long-term relationships know that when it comes to saying yes or no to sex, things are not black and white. We may not always feel like having sex with our partner, but sometimes we do so anyway. We do this out of guilt, love, trying to make our partners happy, a sense of duty, etc. Sometimes when we have "mercy" sex, we end up enjoying it. Other times, we do not enjoy it as much. The point is that there are varying degrees of "yes" and enjoyment when it comes to sex and relationships, and none of this is usually a problem. Problems occur when the sex ratio is skewed too far to the mercy side.
Once one partner starts feeling badly about wanting to say no so much, the body often steps in and says no for them. Once the UTI symptoms set in, the person does not have to say no to sex, because the redness, burning and itching says no for them.
The problem is often deeper than just not wanting to have sex. Not wanting to have sex in a relationship is often a cover for other problems. The person with the UTI is declining physical intimacy over and over again for a reason. These intimacy problems can be because of issues in the current relationship or past ones that are surfacing now. I have scene both types in my clinic.
After I do my TCM symptomatic diagnosis, I then launch into questions about the current relationship. In one case, I had a patient who was frustrated because she had UTI symptoms for over a month and antibiotics were barely making a dent. She ran her own business and was in the process of expanding and was therefore very busy. She worked late hours, was stressed, and generally did not have any energy for sex by the time she got home. Her husband had a stable job with less stress, had more energy left at the end of the day and naturally wanted sex more often than she did. She felt badly about not being home and wanted to please her husband, but this meant that she was having sex way more often then she would on her own. Once I explained the link of her situation and her symptoms, a light turned on in her head. She saw the pattern, started to say no more often with less guilt. After one acupuncture treatment and seven days of herbs, she was symptom free. It turned out that she was not just too tired to have sex; the lack of desire was symptomatic of a larger problem and they broke up. My point here is that the conflict in her heart, created heat that was transmitted through her small intestine to her urinary tract.
I have another story about patient with long term UTIs that illustrates that the problems do not always have to be with the current relationship, but with problems in her past. This woman had UTI symptoms for over 20 years, since she was a young girl. Unless she was constantly on a high dose of potent antibiotics, the symptoms would appear. Even then, the antibiotics did not always work. In talking to her about her current relationship it was easy to see that the problem did not lie there. It was fairly easy to see that the problems occurred in her past.
When she was 5 or 6, an older relative died while she was sitting on his lap. Her family was not particularly open or communicative and they dealt with the situation by telling her that her relative went away and not talking about it any more. She knew that this was not the case, but did not know exactly what happened and was left confused and conflicted about believing her own experience or believing what her parents told her. Not coincidentally, her UTI problems started around then. The conflict in her heart caused heat that her body transmitted through her small intestine.
Even more interesting was that even though her treatment was working great and she was symptom-free, she called to tell me was stopping treatment. She said it was too difficult to dredge up the stuff from the past through our lifestyle counseling. I then offered to not have her come in for acupuncture and counseling and just treat her with the herbs which I could send her in the mail after a brief check over the phone or e-mail. Again she said no, even though she would no longer have to talk about the past and her symptoms would return. My guess here was that there was more going on then just her being present at the death of her relative. The reason her family was not talking about it was that there was probably some other abuse, most likely sexual, going on. She had either repressed these memories and was not ready to look at them, or had remembered them and was also not ready to go there yet. It is easy to understand when patients stop coming because things are not working as quickly or as well as they expect. However I always find it very interesting when patients stop coming because the treatment is working. This can of worms is a huge topic and therefore one for another day.
Here, what I wanted to explore was that you can use TCM theory to treat patients successfully using counseling. In fact, I went through a couple years of my practice were I focused almost exclusively on treating with basic acupuncture and in-depth lifestyle counseling based on their TCM pattern. This is a very successful treatment modality/strategy that helps illuminate and quickly transform many patients' lives. Of course, I translate the TCM terms into ones that the patient can easily understand, connect with and apply to their own circumstances. However I am still using our powerful ancient medicine to (as the slogan on my business card says) help people help themselves.
Click here for previous articles by Kaleb Montgomery, DTCM.