The Effects of Compression: Binding, Chinese Medicine, and You
It’s a dilemma that trans people know all too well: the need to reduce the painful experience of dysphoria on the one hand, and longterm health on the other. At first, the decision is easy; we strap down our chest tissue somehow some way, whether with ace bandages, commercially-made binders or compression shirts. The internal alarm bell that goes off when we look into the mirror or down at ourselves quiets, and we finally get some relief. All seems well for weeks, maybe months.
Unavoidably though, a new problem arises: pain. Where the pain resides exactly depends on the person and the binding method, but it will arise. Compression of our rib case, and the soft tissues beneath, can lead to a wide variety of problems. Rib pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and even scary chest pain can all becomes staples of daily life during binding.
Let’s examine how to think about this situation in Chinese Medicine. In our way of thinking, trunk of the body is divided into three compartments, or Jiao. The upper Jiao contains the lungs, heart and pericardium. The middle houses in the liver, gallbladder, stomach and spleen, while the lower is the home of the kidney, bladder and both intestines. The organ, the Sanjiao or Triple Burner, is a network of water passages that connects all three for the purposes of transport and communication.
In edition to the organs, we also have meridians or channels associated with each organ, as well as larger channels that connect all twelve. The most-often-used metaphor for this system is a watershed that runs through the deepest parts four bodies, which emerges into broad rivers between the muscles and fascia beneath our skin, and finally emerges into small streams at our surface. This network carries information, regulates water metabolism, and ensures that homeostasis (the balance inside our body that enables health) is maintained by subtly responding to all of the weird things that happen us throughout our lives.
Given this system’s intricate levels of communication through different kinds of tissues, imagine what might happen if we took the entire thing in the upper and middle Jiao, and squeezed. Not just once, but constantly, every day, during every waking hour and sometimes sleeping hours as well. One can imagine that all sorts of processes could be negatively effected.
Here are a few major points to consider:
Blood flow: blood is hugely important process that our bodies use to transport nutrients, gasses and yang (life force) from place to place, and its functions are especially associated with the heart, pericardium and liver. If blood flow is impeded, these organs can become either too full of blood (stagnation) or have their blood supply be subtly reduced (deficiency). Symptoms can include chest pain, pain in the ribs and abdomen, anxiety and depression.
Water metabolism: The spleen, lung and kidney are all important organs that ensure the proper flow of moisture around the body. The kidney is said to seam water up into the upper Jiao, the spleen to transform and transport it from food and drink into the other organs, and the lung to accumulate moisture and then rain it back down to the rest of the body. If the lung becomes physically compressed, moisture can accumulate and build up as phlegm. Over time, the heat of the body can cook this immobilized phlegm into a hot goo that results in chronic congestion, hot chest pain, cough and anxiety.
Qi transformation: the work of the organs is done around the body by their associated channels, through a process called Qi Hua or Qi transformation. To give one examples; the stomach channel carries the hot and drying Qi of the stomach organ up the front of the body to assist with digestion, heat distribution and immune functions. Cutting down the size of its pathway through the chest can impede its flow, resulting in stomach organ issues like reflux, nausea or vomiting. It can also have implications for our immune systems.
All of the issues that can arise from binding can be treated through acupuncture, herbs, bodywork, and targeted exercise, but their cause is the practice itself. I want to be careful here not to engage in victim-blaming. Many healthcare providers think about this issue can say “yes, my patients should certainly stop binding if it’s causing so many problems!” But that ignores the entire reason that we do it in the first place. Dysphoria is a very real health problem with severe mental health implications. Binding is often a life-saving act of harm reduction that allows use to life our lives without the constant mental anguish that dysphoria creates.
Surveys of people who bind find that the majority of people are doing it while they await the ability to access a surgical solution. Until very recently, top surgery was not covered by insurance and was only available to those who could pay out of pocket. This has begun to change in some states, but remains the case for most people. Therefore we should remember that binding is a self-preserving response to a societally-imposed scarcity of medically-necessary healthcare. While we engage in the activism needed to change this, here are some harm reduction strategies to consider:
Stretch it out: engage in stretching poses that open the chest and ribs, for at least five minutes a day
Build strength: strengthening the muscles of the back and chest may help hold the body of your ribcage in place and protect them from the longterm effects of compression
Move your body: qi and blood move when we do, and exercise of any kind helps prevent stagnation. Depending on how you bind, running may not be a great plan, but walking is wonderful for both our bodies and our moods
Get some care: we can reduce stagnation and pain by unblocking channels and moving qi and blood in targeted ways, both with acupuncture and with cupping
Take some herbs: chest stagnation and digestive issue in particular respond well to Chinese herbals formulas
Listen to your body: only you can know what is right for you in terms of when to bind, how to move, and how to balance all of the considerations in your life.
Above all, be gentle with yourself as you navigate the complexities of trans experience.
Rowan Everard LAc