The Concept of Wind in Chinese Medicine

Wind is the concept in Chinese medicine that I find people have the most trouble with. There is no easy Western correlate for the term or the concept. I am including a discussion of Wind in this issue because of its correlation with spring and the Liver. There are two types of Wind – external and internal.

External Wind is one of the Six Pernicious Influences that together make up the Wei Yin, or the external causes of disease (there are three categories of disease causation in Chinese medicine – the external causes which are weather, the internal causes which are the emotions, and the neither internal nor external causes which include diet, lifestyle, and trauma). External Wind is characterized by rapid onset and quickly changing symptoms that affect the upper body and the surface of the body. Wind is present in the spring, when the seasons change, and whenever there is any sort of changing weather patterns. Typical symptoms that are seen clinically include headaches, stuffy nose or congestion, facial pain, stiff neck and shoulder, and hip and back pain. The mechanism of action by which symptoms present is that Wind enters through the surface of the body (now called Guest Qi), and is met by the body’s normal protective energy (now called Host Qi). Symptoms are the result of the two mixing together, and the body trying to eliminate the Wind back out through the surface. Wind obstructs the normal functioning of the Lungs, and obstructs the flow of Qi and Blood in the acupuncture channels.

In acupuncture and herbal medicine, surface resolving therapies are used to eliminate Wind by expelling it back out of the surface of the body. Wind does not enter the body alone, and so carries with it one or more of the other Pernicious Influences – Cold, Heat, Summer Heat, Dryness, and Dampness.

Wind illnesses may be minor, though unpleasant, and resolve on their own. They may also penetrate deeper into the body according to the theories of pattern discrimination of the Six Stages (for Cold illnesses) and the Four Levels (for Heat illnesses). At this point, symptoms become more internal and correspondingly more serious and uncomfortable.

Internal Wind may also be characterized by symptoms which appear suddenly and change in nature and location. Unlike external Wind, internal Wind may produce more serious spasm, rigidity, and tremors. Seizures and stroke both include internal Wind as part of their pathology. Organ stroke is what we would refer to as a stroke in the West. This involves damage to the internal organs and tissues. Channel stroke does not enter the internal organs, though like organ stroke, it does require internal Liver disharmony to occur. External Wind is the precipitating factor for channel stroke, the most familiar manifestation of which is Bell’s Palsy.

Wind is always itself a pattern of excess, but may result from other patterns which are classified both as vacuous and excess (the eight principle pattern discrimination model of Chinese medicine classifies imbalances according to their nature with relation to Yin / Yang, Internal / External, Deficient / Excess, Cold / Hot). Causes of Wind are Liver Fire Flaring Upward (a pure excess pattern characterized by Heat, like the turbulence around a campfire); Hyperactive Ascendancy of Liver Yang (a mixed excess / vacuity pattern resulting from Liver Yin being unable to anchor Liver Yang, which rises with a quality of force and pressure); and Liver Blood Vacuity (a vacuity pattern arising from the turbulence of the Blood not filling the vessels, such as the slurping in a straw at the bottom of a glass of water).

Many of the symptoms attributed to Wind, either internal or external, would be considered neurological in Western medicine. Chinese medicine does not have a system of neurology (nor does it have a system of endocrinology), and so attributes such concepts to other aspects of physiology, including Liver physiology and pathology.