Raynaud's Disease: Chinese Medical Perspective



by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon

Web Posting Date: July 2002

Key medical terms: Raynaud's phenomenon, vasoconstriction, scleroderma, lupus, microcirculation
Key Chinese medical references: cold syndrome, liver dysfunction, stagnation of qi and blood, blood stasis
Drugs: calcium channel blockers (nifedipine, Procardia); alpha blockers (Minipress, Cardura)
Chinese herbs: cinnamon, aconite, bupleurum, baked licorice, peony, tang-kuei
Chinese formulas: Si Ni Tang, Si Ni San, Dang Gui Si Ni Tang, Yang He Tang
SUMMARY: Raynaud's Disease is associated with intense vasoconstriction; the disorder occurs mainly in women and is experienced in attacks that are usually triggered by exposure to cold or by emotional stress. Fingers and toes are the most frequent site of symptoms. The disorder either occurs by itself (primary Raynaud's) or in conjunction with an autoimmune disorder such as scleroderma (secondary Raynaud's). Chinese medical texts have described problems of severe cold of the limbs since ancient times. Doctors have prescribed herbal remedies for dispelling chill or regulating the flow of qi and blood. Although there are relatively few Chinese clinical reports of treatments for Raynaud's, there is broad agreement among scholars and practitioners about the principles of therapy and the herbs to include in formulas for the disorder. A listing of the main herbs and some examples of potentially useful formulations is provided here.
by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon

Raynaud's Disease (or syndrome) is diagnosed when a person suffers repeatedly from Raynaud's phenomenon, characterized by a sudden restriction in blood circulation that occurs under the influence of certain stimuli, mainly exposure to cold or extreme emotional stress. The blood vessels in the fingers and toes are primarily affected; the vessels constrict rapidly and remain in that state for anywhere from a minute to an hour, sometimes longer. The person suffering from this condition experiences paleness and discomfort (e.g., numbness, tingling, or burning sensation) in the affected areas. When the condition persists over several minutes, the paleness may turn to blueness due to lack of blood circulation; when the vessels finally relax, the affected parts may become red, throbbing, and painful as the circulation returns. The fingers are most often affected by this disorder, followed in frequency by toes, and then, much more rarely, one or more of the ears, lips, and nose. Women experience Raynaud's more than men do (by a ratio of about 4:1), and the disorder usually appears for the first time during the age range of 20-40. The phenomenon, in somewhat altered form, is sometimes associated with autoimmune disorders-mainly scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjogren's syndrome-in which case the Raynaud's is described as secondary; the uncomplicated form is called primary Raynaud's Disease (1, 2). With scleroderma, 90% of patients suffer from Raynaud's. Modern medical therapies are based on drugs that relax the vasoconstriction. These include calcium channel blockers such as nifedipine (Procardia), and alpha blockers (alpha-adrenergic blockers), such as Minipress and Cardura, that are typically used to alleviate constriction of the cardiac arteries when treating angina pectoris. These have limited effectiveness, and are mainly of benefit for those who have primary Raynaud's.

Treatment with Chinese Medicine: Theoretical Basis
Treatment of Raynaud's disease with Chinese medicine is not frequently mentioned in the medical literature. This may be because there already exists a strong theoretical framework for treating the disease, so that researchers have not bothered to confirm the efficacy of the strategies employed.

The broad theoretical framework of Chinese medicine, applied to numerous diseases, relies heavily on the concept of circulation. Two co-circulating essences, qi and blood, are the subject of medical philosophy and practical aspects of diagnosis and therapy. Qi (pronounced "chee") is a concept mysterious to the West, and complex and poorly defined in the Orient. The term is retained in modern practice of traditional medicine because it is a dominant one in the description of disease etiology and the effects of therapeutic measures. It is not readily translated to a Western equivalent, and the common attempt to describe qi as energy or vital energy is usually inadequate (3).

Briefly, qi is both a force that is behind transformation and movement and an essence, a substance needed by the body to nourish all the organs. A well-known saying in the Chinese tradition is: "The qi moves the blood, and the blood carries the qi." The meaning of the first part of this saying is that qi is a regulator of blood circulation, assuring the proper flow and distribution of blood throughout the body. This regulation refers to the force of qi in moving the blood as well as its ability to direct the flow to different parts of the body and to retain the blood within the vessels, preventing it from leaking out. The meaning of the second part of the saying is that blood provides the medium by which the qi can be brought to all parts of the body. In virtually all discussions of traditional Chinese medicine, scholars and practitioners refer to the "flow of qi and blood;" that is, they are not separate but united.

In the case of Raynaud's phenomenon, there is obviously something amiss in the circulation of qi and blood as they flow to the extremities. So, from the Chinese point of view, the disorder occurs because the normal circulation of qi and blood has been disrupted. The suddenness of the symptom onset, and its temporary but repetitive nature (appearing as a number of discreet attacks), indicates that there is an underlying imbalance that is triggered into a serious reaction. In complete agreement with the modern medical view as described above, the Chinese doctors believe there are two main triggers: an external one (exposure to cold) and an internal one (emotional distress).

From the traditional Chinese perspective, susceptibility to coldness implies that the person is already cold inside; the external cold combines with the pre-existing cold to produce a condition sufficiently extreme that the Raynaud's phenomenon occurs. It is well-established by modern investigators that a natural and normal response to coldness is for the circulation in the extremities to be lessened; this response is the body's means of protecting the heat of the essential interior organs, preventing the loss of heat through the extremities. So, if the person is already cold inside, then this otherwise normal reaction may come more easily and be more severe, extending to a temporary collapse of the vessels. One solution is to warm up the body with herbs that are reputed to be very warming in nature.

Physical reactions to emotional distress, such as substantial vasoconstriction, suggest that the body is already sensitized to emotions; a pattern of response has been established. From the Chinese viewpoint, the internal organ system referred to as "gan" and translated as liver is the one that is involved in these reactions. When making reference to the liver, as will be done here, the ancient method of describing the body is used, without expecting a one-to-one correspondence with the physical organ and its functions as understood today. Accordingly, it is understood in the Chinese system that when the liver is distressed, it can react rapidly, often with contraction of muscles as a response. Raynaud's phenomenon involves the contraction of muscles surrounding the blood vessels, cutting down the circulation within the vessels. One solution is to resolve the liver imbalance so that it does not react so strongly to emotional stimuli.

Both the syndrome of internal cold and the syndrome of distressed liver are potential contributors to Raynaud's, and they are not entirely exclusive patterns. That is, with distressed liver function, the body can also react rapidly and severely to cold, not just emotional distress; with internal cold, the body can react to emotion by becoming even colder, not just by exposure to external coldness. Therefore, in order to utilize Chinese medical therapies, one must determine which of the underlying causes needs to be treated.

Modern researchers have given some additional clues to the nature of the disorder that help influence the clinical choices of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. These researchers have noted that in primary Raynaud's there is no disruption of circulation in the microvessels (capillaries), as observed in the nailfold (a site where the capillaries are readily visible). That is the constriction occurs at the level of the arterioles or arteries and is fully reversible.

Chinese researchers have used observation of nailfold capillary circulation as a determinant of whether there is a blood stasis syndrome. A blood stasis disorder, differs from poor circulation of qi and blood, and usually involves disruption of circulation by a physical distortion or blockage of the vessels, not just a reversible spasm. The syndrome also involves thickening of the blood, easy blood coagulation, and clotting of the blood either within or outside of the vessels (outside the vessels after leakage, as occurs with bruising). Researchers have found the red blood cell (erythrocyte) sedimentation rate, a measure of blood "thickness" is not raised in persons with primary Raynaud's, another indication that blood stasis is not a likely scenario. From the traditional medicine point of view, therefore, there is a disruption of the circulation of qi and blood, but not a blood stasis syndrome.

However, when Raynaud's is secondary to an autoimmune disease, such as scleroderma, there may be both disruption of the capillary bed circulation and increased sedimentation rate, demonstrating the presence of a blood stasis syndrome. Therefore, the treatment of primary and secondary Raynaud's may differ in that the latter is also treated with herbs for resolving blood stasis.

Basing Treatment on Traditional Formulas
In the famous Chinese medical text Jingui Yaolue (ca. 200 A.D.), which is devoted to treatment of miscellaneous diseases, especially those experienced by women, there are two primary formulas for treatment of cold limbs (3). One is called Si Ni Tang and the other Si Ni San. The term Si Ni refers to the four (si) distressed limbs (ni); the distress is restricted circulation and coldness, with numbness or aching. The term "tang" simply refers to a decoction of whole crude herbs and the term "san" refers to a powder that is briefly cooked with water to make a tea.

The traditional Si Ni Tang is a prescription for treating a serious cold syndrome. This condition might be induced by the combination of exposure to cold environmental conditions and an underlying weak metabolism (described as deficiency of yang; the warm aspect of the yin/yang pair). The formula is comprised of just three ingredients (see Table 1 for additional herb details): ginger, raw aconite, and honey-baked licorice; dry ginger and aconite are used to strongly warm up the yang; baked licorice is a moderating herb that also improves the production of qi. Today, the toxic ingredient raw aconite is no longer used and is replaced by the far less toxic processed aconite. The formula has the function of warming the yang to dispel chills. The formula is sometimes described as the "Decoction for Treating Yang Exhaustion."

The traditional Si Ni San is a prescription for coldness of the extremities that is secondary to restricted distribution of qi and blood from the central viscera to the limbs. The formula is comprised of four ingredients: bupleurum, chih-shih (bitter orange), peony, and honey-baked licorice. Unlike the Si Ni Tang formula, the main ingredients bupleurum, chih-shih, and peony are cool in nature, not warming. The formula is administered when the heat of the body is constrained to the interior, hidden away, leaving the surface of the body cold and sensitive to cold. Thus, the person does not have an underlying cold condition, and may even be warm inside, yet very cold at the surface, with aversion to cold temperature. The constraining action is attributed to the liver, which is particularly reactive and subject to the effects of emotional distress when insufficiently nourished by the blood. To rectify the problem, one does not introduce more heat, which would only agitate the person who already has enough heat constrained at the interior, but one gently disperses the heat by relaxing the liver and nourishing the blood. With administration of Si Ni San, the stagnated qi is released from the liver to flow out to the extremities, moving the blood with it. In a companion volume to Jingui Yaolue by the same author, another formula for cold extremities is mentioned: Dang Gui Si Ni Tang. As in Si Ni San, the formula includes peony and baked licorice; it also includes the warming herb cinnamon twig, and the blood-nourishing and circulation promoting tang-kuei (dang gui).

According to the fundamental tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, there is not a single optimal herbal formulation for a condition such as Raynaud's; one should analyze the patient's condition and treat the particular syndrome with the proper formula. Hence, for example, if the person who suffers from Raynaud's has signs of a cold syndrome, such as slow pulse, pale tongue, desire for hot drinks, etc., then the Si Ni Tang formula, Dang Gui Si Ni Tang (for more anemic patients), or one derived from them, might be used. If, on the other hand, the person shows signs of qi stagnation, such as muscular tension, irritability, alternating symptoms of heat and cold or of calmness and agitation, then one might use Si Ni San or a derivative formulation.

The effectiveness of the formulas mentioned, or other treatments, for Raynaud's disease have not been evaluated in clinical studies. However, Chinese herbs are well-established as treatments for vasospasms. A practitioner of Chinese medicine can carry out a traditional style diagnosis and determine whether one of the above-mentioned formulas, a modified version, or another formula would be most suitable. Sample prescriptions are presented in Table 2.

Raynaud's Disease Secondary to Scleroderma.
Raynaud's phenomenon is mainly mentioned in modern Chinese literature as a symptom experienced by patients with scleroderma. Scleroderma is caused by an autoimmune process: it produces a thickening and tightening of the skin as its primary feature. The blood and the blood vessels are also affected, which is the reason for the high incidence of Raynaud's in these patients. According to an analysis of autoimmune diseases published in the Journal of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (5), scleroderma is typically associated with yang deficiency and coldness which leads to impaired qi and blood circulation and blood stasis syndrome. The principles of Chinese herbal therapy are to tonify the deficiency and to resolve stasis of blood.

A traditional formula for yang deficiency syndrome that is sometimes recommended for those with scleroderma and other cold syndromes is called Yang He Tang (Decoction for Warming Yang). This formula was first described in the book Waike Quanshengji (1740), a text devoted to treatment of diseases at the body's surface. Yang He Tang relies mainly on cinnamon bark and ginger for warming effects; it is described as providing warmth to the body just as the spring sun warms the cold winter ground (6). This is an apt description for the needs of some people with Raynaud's as well.

Herbs That May Enter Formulas for Raynaud's
Several of the herbs that are likely to be used for Raynaud's Disease are outlined in Table 1, grouped according to their basic therapeutic role; these same herbs are used in treatment of scleroderma (7).

Table 1: Herbs Potentially Useful for Raynaud's
(Common Name, Chinese Name) Role in Treating Raynaud's and Comments
Qi Tonic Herbs
Astragalus (huangqi) Tonifies the qi to promote the circulation of blood.
Baked licorice (zhigancao) Helps nourish the qi carried by the blood to benefit the organ functions.
Ginseng (renshen) Invigorates qi and yang to improve the circulation.
Blood Tonic Herbs
Tang-kuei (danggui) Nourishes the blood to relax spasms and promote blood circulation.
Peony (baishao) Nourishes the blood to relax spasms and promote blood circulation.
Cnidium (chuanxiong) Promotes blood circulation, alleviates pain, and nourishes blood.
Rehmannia (shudihuang) Nourishes the blood and protects the body from strong heating effects of chill-dispelling herbs.
Chill Dispelling Herbs
Ginger (ganjiang) Warms the interior, dispels chilliness.
Aconite (fuzi) Warms the interior, invigorates yang, alleviates pain.
Cinnamon (guizhi and rougui) Warms the interior, promotes blood circulation, alleviates pain
Yang Tonic Herbs
Mordina (bajili) Warms the metabolism.
Epimedium (yinyanghuo) Warms the metabolism, regulates hormones.
Qi Regulating Herbs
Bupleurum (chaihu) Relaxes the liver, aids the free flow of qi, relaxes spasms.
Chih-shih (zhishi) Relieves central stagnation of qi.
Blood Vitalizing Herbs
Salvia (danshen) Invigorates the circulation of blood.
Red peony (chishao) Invigorates the circulation of blood.
Pueraria (gegen) Relieves tension in the muscles, promotes blood circulation.
Carthamus (honghua) Invigorates blood circulation and alleviates blood stasis.
Persica (taoren) Invigorates blood circulation and alleviates blood stasis.
Table 2: Sample Formulations for Raynaud's. These formulations are from the current author, based on review of the Chinese medical literature.
Formula Designation Main Ingredients Indications
Modified Si Ni Tang ginger, aconite, cinnamon bark, baked licorice, tang-kuei, peony, cnidium, rehmannia. Interior cold syndrome with poor circulation to the limbs.
Modified Si Ni San bupleurum, chih-shih, peony, baked licorice, pueraria, salvia, red peony, tang-kuei Liver dysfunction with impaired blood flow.
Modified Yang He Tang cinnamon bark, rehmannia, ginger, baked licorice, astragalus, tang-kuei, cnidium, peony. Qi and yang deficiency with coldness and impaired blood circulation.
Modified Bu Yang Huan Wu Tang astragalus, tang-kuei, red peony, cnidium, carthamus, persica, cinnamon bark. Qi deficiency with blood stasis syndrome and coldness, as occurs in Raynaud's secondary to scleroderma.
Modified Bu Shen Wen Yang Tang rehmannia, aconite, epimedium, morinda, tang-kuei, peony, cnidium, salvia, astragalus, ginseng, baked licorice. Qi, yang and blood deficiency with impaired circulation, such as occurs in Raynaud's secondary to lupus.
National Institutes of Health, website: http://www.niams.nih.gov/hi/topics/raynaud/ar125fs.htm
Block JA, Sequeira W, Raynaud's phenomenon, Lancet 2001; 357; 2042-2048.
Dharmananda S, Qi: Drawing a Concept, 1997 START Group Manuscripts, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR.
Hsu HY and Wang SY (translators), Chin Kuei You Lueh, 1983 Oriental Healing Arts Institute, Long Beach, CA.
Zhang WT and Meng R, Autoimmune diseases as treated by traditional Chinese medicine, Journal of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine 1982; (1): 39-50.
Bensky D and Barolet R, Chinese Herbal Medicine: Formulas and Strategies, 1990, Eastland Press, Seattle, WA.
Su Lide, Xue Wei, and Qiu Jaiqin, Treatment of 180 cases of systemic scleroderma by integrated Western and Chinese Medicine, Chinese Journal of Dermatology, 1985; 18(4): 215-218.
For a practitioner who can prescribe Chinese herb formulas, visit www.itmonline.org/pract.htm.
For information on Lupus For information on Scleroderma
Lupus Foundation of America
1330 Piccard Drive, Suite 200
Rockville, MD 20850-4303
Phone: 301-670-9292 or 800-558-0121
E-mail: LupusInfo@aol.com
www.lupus.org Scleroderma Foundation
12 Kent Way, Suite 101
Byfield, MA 01922
Phone: 800-722-HOPE (4673)
E-mail: sfinfo@scleroderma.org


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