By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disease that causes phlegm or mucus in the body to be too thick and sticky, which can lead to malfunctioning of vital organs. Cystic fibrosis can cause infections and ultimately, damage to the lungs, heart, and digestive system. Acupuncture and TCM can provide complementary treatment for cystic fibrosis symptoms.
CF disease causes serious problems throughout a person’s system due to the production of abnormal mucus (sometimes spelled mucous). Mucous should be mostly made of water, so that it provides lubrication in and around the major organs. Mucus that does not have the right balance of water and salt can clog parts of the body, especially the airways, making it difficult to breathe. The thick mucus can also cause blockages in the digestive system.
Cystic fibrosis is caused by mutations of the CFTR gene, which provides the information for producing the CFTR protein. When this protein doesn’t work right, it can lead to the wrong amount of salt or water in the mucus. If mucus is too sticky, then organs like the lungs, intestines, and liver have a hard time doing their respective jobs. Thick mucus in the pancreas, in particular, can cause digestive problems, malnutrition, and can affect insulin production, leading to diabetes.
As recently as a few decades ago, it used to be that children with CF rarely lived into adulthood. Now, CF life expectancy has increased due to advances in cystic fibrosis treatment. Current cystic fibrosis life expectancy statistics show that the average person with CF will live into their mid-40s; there are now many senior citizens still living with CF, and there are more adults with cystic fibrosis than children.
There are many different types of cystic fibrosis treatment, which can help reduce symptoms and complications. Medical treatment for cystic fibrosis aims to change the quality of the mucus, clear mucus from the lungs, reduce chances of infection, and improve the absorption of nutrients from food. Acupuncture and other TCM treatment for cystic fibrosis can also be used to help improve these CF symptoms.
Cystic Fibrosis Symptoms
Signs of cystic fibrosis symptoms in infants may look different than CF symptoms in adults. A person is born with CF, but different symptoms may develop over time.
Symptoms of cystic fibrosis in children may include:
- Salty sweat, skin tastes salty
- Phlegmy cough, coughing up blood
- Wheezing, trouble breathing
- Poor growth, low weight, failure to thrive
- Greasy stool or constipation
- Gassy, stomach ache, pain in belly
- Finger clubbing, clubbed fingers, or clubbed toes
Other, deeper health problems may develop as children with cystic fibrosis grow, including: lung infections, sinus infections, pancreatitis, gallstones, liver disease, diabetes, rectal prolapse, or high blood pressure in the lung arteries that can lead to heart failure.
Most people are diagnosed with cystic fibrosis while they are still very young, but it is possible for a person to grow into adulthood without knowing they have CF.
Adults with cystic fibrosis may experience:
- Decreased immune function, low levels of antibodies
- Liver problems, cirrhosis
- Lack of digestive enzymes due to low functioning of the pancreas
- Intestinal blockages
- Low absorption of nutrients due to mucus in the intestinal tract
- Infertility in men; male infertility
- Bone disease, arthritis
Cystic Fibrosis Genetics
Cystic fibrosis is a chronic disease that is caused by a recessive gene. Cystic fibrosis inheritance means that both parents have a mutated copy of the CFTR gene; in other words, each parent is a cystic fibrosis carrier, even though in most cases, neither parent has CF or cystic fibrosis symptoms.
Cystic Fibrosis Diagnosis and CF Testing
Most newborn babies are tested for signs of cystic fibrosis in the U.S., so parents will usually learn that their child has CF soon after birth. This way, cystic fibrosis treatment can be implemented immediately, which offers the best chances of keeping CF disease under control.
Initial screening for CF involves first checking for high levels of IRT, a chemical protein released by the pancreas. High levels of IRT can be an indicator of CF or other problems with the pancreas; although, it can also be related to infant stress or premature delivery. If the IRT is high, then other tests will be performed.
A sweat test is considered the primary way to diagnose cystic fibrosis. Sweat is collected from the skin. If it shows high levels of salt, or chloride (a chemical component of salt), this is an indication that a person has CF.
Genetic testing, or CR carrier testing, will usually be performed in order to confirm the CF diagnosis, and so that the specific genetic defects that will affect the patient’s health are understood fully.
Cystic Fibrosis Treatment
Up until recently, most CF treatments were aimed at helping to provide symptomatic relief. Cystic fibrosis medications include drugs that can help thin mucus, bronchodilators to help open the airways, and antibiotics to help prevent and control infections. Many of these medications are inhaled through a nebulizer.
A cystic fibrosis vest is a machine worn around the chest that vibrates and can be used as a daily therapy to help clear mucus from the lungs.
More recent advances have led to the development of genetic therapies for cystic fibrosis. CFTR modulator therapies address the underlying CF causes having to do with cell membranes and the CFTR protein. This new treatment may be able to improve lung function in patients who have the most common form of CFTR gene mutation.
People with CF need to eat more calories and a higher fat diet in order to be able to maintain a healthy weight and get enough nutrients, so they are usually prescribed a special cystic fibrosis diet to help them achieve this.
Cystic fibrosis is a chronic illness that requires constant care. TCM and acupuncture can provide a meaningful adjunct treatment to medical therapies to improve quality of life and longevity.
Can Acupuncture Help Cystic Fibrosis?
Centuries before medical science began to understand how genetic diseases are passed down, TCM has acknowledged that certain conditions are part of a person’s constitution when they are born.
According to TCM theory, we are all born with Qi. Some Qi can be replenished (Postnatal Qi), and other Qi is given to us at birth in a finite amount (Yuan Qi, or Ancestral Qi).
Difficulty with breathing and digesting food causes people with CF to have a harder time replenishing Qi. They also have less of the finite type of Qi, so they must take extra care to preserve it. Because of this weaker Qi, the organ systems of the body have deficiencies that must be helped with nourishment and care. Kidney deficiency, which is related to the weaker Yuan Qi, can lead to lack of fluids in the body, as is typical in CF. TCM can help improve organ function through modalities like acupuncture, cupping, herbs, and nutrition.
TCM methods used in combination can help to clear phlegm from the lungs and other organs. This, in turn, will help a person fight off infections better.
Cupping, a modality that creates suction to increase circulation can help draw congestion from the lungs. Chinese herbs and the right nutrition program can help to improve the balance of fluids in the body, to help thin mucus.
Many adults with cystic fibrosis experience chest pain, gastrointestinal pain, and/or headaches. Acupuncture has been shown to decrease these types of pain.
Acupuncture Near Me for Cystic Fibrosis, Los Angeles Area
Living with a chronic illness is an everyday challenge. It is necessary for patients with Cystic fibrosis to build a team of healthcare professionals who can support them with the right treatment for their individual needs. An acupuncturist takes into consideration the whole person: their specific symptoms, and also their mental and emotional health. Regular visits with a TCM doctor can help alleviate the physical symptoms of CF, but also help maintain emotional balance, addressing feelings of depression and anxiety. If you or someone you know has cystic fibrosis, please consider adding acupuncture to your healthcare plan.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.