Ask Grand Master Nan Lu: Sports Injuries

Question: I am a very active adult and play tennis, softball and basketball weekly. This often comes with aches, pains and sprained ligaments, or worse! I’m suffering through tendonitis now and it’s extremely painful. I’ve always treated injuries with ice. Is this what TCM recommends?



Let’s back up a moment and understand why you are getting injured in the first place. Just because you are active does not mean you are guaranteed to experience injuries. If your Liver-Gallbladder partnership is strong, you are less prone to sports injuries. In the Five Element energetic framework, the tendon is the tissue of the Liver. Speed comes from flexible tendons, not from massive muscles. Tendons are structures that attach muscles to bones. Ligaments are similar structures that attach bones to  other bones. When muscles and bones move, they can exert stresses on the tendons and ligaments attached to them. TCM associates tendonitis, or inflammation of tendons, with Liver-Gallbladder dysfunction.

In looking at sports injury from the quantum framework, we see that an injury like a sprain creates swelling, which means Blood and Qi are not flowing. If there’s a bruise, there is also stagnation. Blood and Qi have become stuck. Common medical practice for sports injuries and swelling almost always involves icing. But in the TCM framework, It’s essential to avoid cold at all costs. TCM views cold as a serious pathogen that can wreak havoc on the body.

Instead, the standard recommended TCM treatment for sports injury and some lower back pain is the opposite. Since stagnation related to the Liver is associated with Cold energy, warmth or heat is applied to alleviate stagnation. Heat helps Blood and Qi flow. While icing a sports injury can help alleviate pain and swelling quickly, the relief is only temporary. Cold prevents healing action. Sooner or later, applying too much Cold to sports or other injuries produces long-term consequences. Cold will eventually penetrate the body and migrate to the bones, where it can later cause arthritis, or worse.

I recommend my patients take a very hot bath. They should also go to a sauna, if possible. I recommend a moist sauna, rather than a dry one, because it can invigorate Bladder function, which in turn, will support the Liver. Saunas help the Bladder release internal dampness. However, use caution not to sweat too much, and not to drink cold beverages if you are sweating. A TCM practitioner will most likely also add herbal therapy. Slowly, from the inside out, you can begin to improve this condition. If you try to work from the outside in, especially using Cold, you may cause further damage. The real fix is from the inside out. Ginger’s essence is warm and helps Liver Qi flow smoothly. Make a tea from fresh ginger root and brown sugar. Drink several cups a day to gradually help relieve internal dampness.

Today, science tells us it takes about three months or one hundred days for the body’s red blood cells to renew themselves. For many centuries, the martial arts have understood this functional process in regard to sports injuries. It was common practice for fighters to take one hundred days to recover fully from major injuries received in competition.

In using heat, TCM treats the injury by increasing blood flow, which simultaneously allows Qi to flow. Think about this: Our bodies, like Earth, are about 70 percent water. What happens when water encounters cold temperatures? It freezes. Everything stops; nothing moves. Sooner or later, continually applying cold to sports injuries results in future health conditions. We often see this with older athletes who suffer from arthritis and other conditions that a TCM practitioner would identify as Qi stagnation.


Learn more about How to Create a Balanced Internal Environment in your body.