A new patient told me a familiar story on her first visit. When she moved to a new city, she got an awful sinus infection that first winter, the kind that makes the whole side of your face throb and teeth ache. She went to the doctor for a course of antibiotics, but the infection didn’t go away. So she tried another course. That didn’t work either.
Then someone recommended she try acupuncture to relieve sinus pain, and it worked in just a couple visits. Over the holidays and during this deep part of winter, I see a lot of patients with sinus congestion and infections.
Research shows that antibiotics aren’t very effective for upper respiratory infections like sinusitis, since 98 percent of the time, they’re caused by a virus.
As an acupuncturist trained in Chinese medicine, I look at a sinus infection as an imbalance in energy. I know that needles placed in just the right points in the body can clear up congestion, relieve pain and stimulate the body’s own healing power.
In the wintertime, our kidney energy, which is the most primal energy in our body, is going inward. This is a good time of year to be introspective and get more rest, because we’re getting prepared for the bounce of energy in the spring.
But in this day and age, we don’t necessarily honor that. We keep going and going even though our bodies want us to rest. This constant output of energy sets us up to get more colds in the wintertime, including sinus infections.
Plus, we can’t forget the revelry between Halloween and New Year’s Eve, when most of us indulge in wine, sweet holiday treats and staying up later than normal. When we overeat sweets, hot and spicy food, and drink too much alcohol, all these things create too much damp heat in our system. The result of all this indulgence can be a sore throat with phlegm or a sinus infection.
How Acupuncture Can Help
With colds and sinus congestion, self-care at home is key. Rinsing your sinuses with Neil Sinus Med, steam inhalation and using pseudoephedrine are some of the most effective ways you can relieve sinus congestion at home. And acupuncture works right along with your self-care.
We use a variety of points to open up the sinuses and lungs to strengthen the system to help you feel better. And numerous studies show that acupuncture can help relieve sinus congestion and rhinitis, which can cause post-nasal drip, stuffy nose and phlegm in the throat.
In a 2010 Chinese study, 85 people with chronic rhinitis were treated with sinus-point acupuncture. Each person in the study completed up to 30 of the 20-minute acupuncture treatments. The results were dramatic: 72 percent of the subjects (61 people) reported full recovery from their nasal and sinus problems, while 25 percent (21 people) said they had a marked improvement. Only three people said they didn’t benefit at all.
And in a small 2012 study at UCLA, researchers led by Jeffrey Suh found that pairing acupuncture with Western medicine was an effective way to treat recurring sinus problems.
When a new patient comes in for acupuncture, I do a comprehensive assessment to find out about their health, which gives me a good idea of where to look for other signs of imbalance. I also look at their tongue and take their pulse, which helps with diagnosis and treatment.
Once this is complete, I decide on which points to use to offer them relief. Several points on the body are really effective at clearing this damp heat and the related sinus infection away.
One of the first points is called “penetrating the nose” (bitong) that’s right by the crease on the side of the nose. This is a powerful point that affects the nasal passages and the whole sinus system. Acupuncture usually doesn’t hurt, but if you’re having a sinus blockage, this point can be sensitive. But the sensation soon goes away as the sinus opens up.
Another favorite point is called “leg three li” (Stomach 36) that’s right near the knee. This phenomenal point helps with regulating dampness in the body, calming the mind, supporting the lungs and boosting energy overall.
My third go-to point for the sinuses is called “great surge” (Liver 3), the little crease between the big toe and the next one. This point is great for clearing heat in the sinuses, pain around the eyes and pressure.
Every case is different, but usually, with a treatment or two, and some self care, the sinus infection clears and they’re feeling better again.
5 Ways to Prevent a Sinus Infection
Many patients I treat have real chronic sinus issues that keep coming back after they have been treated. If you find that you’re getting more sinus infections or even colds or flu during the winters season, consider taking these steps to head them off.
1. Wear a scarf.
Have you ever gotten a chill on a windy night and then the next morning you feel a scratchy or itchy throat? In Chinese medicine, we say the onset of a cold happens when wind gets to our neck. Never sleep under an air conditioner or fan and protect the back of your neck with a scarf — plus it’s fashionable.
2. Limit sweets, dairy and alcohol, especially in colder weather.
None of us really needs salted caramel ice cream, cronuts or Manhattans, but in moderation, they can be a real treat. If you know you’re prone to sinus issues, be extra careful so these three don’t lead you to a sinus infection during colder weather.
3. Take it easy.
Mother Nature takes the winter off to rest and recharge and so do animals like bears and hedgehogs. It’s not a bad idea for humans either. Using the cool weather to rest, cook at home, relax with friends and family is a good way to preserve your health.
4. Try drinking bone broth.
I’m a big believer in bone broth soup. It nourishes the kidney energy, it brings in warmth and is phenomenal for immunity. I have my patients make bone broth soup and drink a cup every day.
5. Find ways to de-stress.
Keeping your stress levels down keeps your resistance high. Meditation is a good way to calm the mind. And going to bed when you feel tired and getting enough sleep are good ways to keep your stress levels down.