Urinary tract infections (UTI’s) are miserable things. If you’ve ever had one, you’re no stranger to the lightening bolt of pain you feel every time you go to the bathroom. You don’t know what to do because it will hurt if you go, but holding it hurts, too. One thing you do know is that you want it to stop hurting.
While what’s going on may seem like a simple bladder infection, in Chinese medicine they’re anything but simple. Like headaches, colds, or back pain, bladder infections (or UTI’s) have a distinct personality. Symptoms can run the gamut from urinary urgency, frequency, difficulty, dribbling, sharp urethral pain, spasms in the lower abdomen, and pain radiating to your lower back.
In Chinese medicine, UTI’s generally fall into a pattern of excess or depletion. Excess patterns are due to an accumulation or too much of something. Bladder infections that are excess tend to be a combination of dampness (an accumulation of fluids) and heat. The most notable symptom of this kind of pattern is a burning pain during urination. A damp heat UTI can be the result of too much alcohol, hot spicy food, sweets, or poor hygiene.
UTI’s that are caused by depletion are usually the result of being run down from aging, not sleeping well, poor diet, and…um, too much sex. Living life a little too fully can wear down your Chinese Kidney and/or Spleen to the point that you’re unable to metabolize water or control the mechanism of the bladder very well. The end result can be incontinence or dribbling, dull and achy pain, and a sore lower back.
To further complicate the diagnosis, in Chinese medicine, bladder infections are grouped into six different types:
Heat. This is the typical bladder infection, with sharp, burning pain. You may also run a fever; have constipation, thirst, or a bitter taste in your mouth.
Stony. This one really hurts with the kind of pain that can bring you to your knees. This is essentially kidney stones, and the symptoms include severe low back or abdominal pain, cramping, difficulty urinating, urinating blood, and passing stones in the urine.
Qi. This is all about your energy, or Qi, and can be either excess or deficient. An excess pattern means that your energy is stagnating and causing symptoms, which include difficult urination, a feeling of fullness or pain in your lower abdomen, and possibly chest tightness or rib pain. A depleted Qi pattern is caused by not having enough energy for your bladder to metabolize water. Symptoms in this case may include a feeling of heaviness in your lower abdomen, dripping or incontinence, possibly a pale complexion, feeling tired, shortness of breath, and an achy lower back.
Bloody. This pattern can also be from either an excess or depletion, but either way, there will be blood in your urine. An excess pattern is essentially heat causing you to bleed, with symptoms such as urinary frequency, urgency, sharp burning pain, and of course, blood in your urine–usually a fair amount. Being depleted can also cause blood in your urine, but there typically won’t be as much blood, or the bleeding will occur over a long period of time. Also, if this pattern is from being depleted, it won’t generally be as sharply painful, but you may feel tired and you may have a weak, achy low back and/or knees.
Cloudy. Like the bloody pattern, this one can come from either an excess or a depletion. The common denominator however, is cloudy or milky looking urine. If caused by an excess, this type will have very cloudy urine with urethral pain and burning. If from a depletion, your symptoms may include dribbling of cloudy looking urine, mild urethral pain, dizziness, ringing ears, and again, a weak or achy lower back and knees. This pattern tends to affect people who have a thin, weak, or depleted body type.
Taxation. This is a total depletion pattern, and comes from overdoing it or being totally wiped out. The symptoms include periodic dribbling of urine, stress incontinence (leaking after jumping or sneezing), fatigue, and an achy, weak low back or knees.
Each type of UTI has a specific method of treatment in Chinese medicine. However, in general, an excess pattern will involve clearing heat and resolving the dampness. This may be done through a combination of acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and food therapy. A common herbal formula for bladder infections is Ba Zheng San, (also called Eight Herb Powder for Rectification). This particular formula works to clear heat and drain out dampness, and in some cases can be used for UTI’s where there is some blood in the urine.
For UTI’s that are caused by being depleted, the first line of treatment may involve Chinese herbs to supplement Spleen or Kidney Qi (energy). Acupuncture and foods chosen to build up your strength may also become part of your treatment. It’s important to remember that it usually takes longer to treat a depletion pattern than an excess pattern. That’s because when you’re depleted, the treatment involves nourishing or rebuilding your body, and this can take time. However, with the proper treatment and time, you can rebuild your body and prevent your symptoms from recurring.