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Demystifying Chinese Medicine – What on Earth is Liver Qi Stagnation?

Suppose you go for some acupuncture treatment; in fact, suppose you go for some traditional acupuncture treatment. Maybe conventional medicine has not been able to help you regain your health, or maybe you want some form of treatment which does not have a rather long list of side-effects to worry about. Maybe you want a more holistic form of care. Or maybe you are just curious.

Your acupuncturist will be looking to understand any health issues you have within the context of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and the treatment they give you will be informed by this understanding, which they will also want to share with you, since the more informed you are of what is going on in your body (and mind!) the better able you will be to improve matters yourself. It’s not wise just to rely on a doctor, or an acupuncturist, or any other health care practitioner; you need to be pro-active yourself.

However, many forms of medicine are quite sophisticated and technical, which creates a challenge both for the clinician and for the patient, when it comes to the former communicating their understanding to the latter. Although TCM is in many ways a straightforward medical system, based as it is on an understanding of the human patient as part of the natural world and subject to natural influences, both benign and harmful, it does come from a culture quite alien to most of us in the west.

So, for instance, your friendly acupuncturist may advise you that you are suffering from Liver Qi Stagnation. To a Chinese person this may make perfect sense, but for us westerners it sounds weird and wonderful, and thus needs demystifying. Let’s start with the’ Qi’ bit.


Qi is an untranslatable Chinese word! So much for demystification! Attempting the impossible, people have variously rendered it as ‘energy’, ‘vital energy’ ‘refined substance’ ‘vital transformation potential’, and a hundred other things, all of which probably leave us none the wiser. Qi at any rate is something that moves, that flows; it is the movement of life, we could say, attempting the impossible ourselves. A healthy person is one in whom Qi flows evenly and harmoniously; their body is relaxed and supple, their internal organs function smoothly, their emotional life is balanced, their thoughts measured. Qi encompasses all of this. (You can find more in depth information about Qi here.)


We may have some understanding of what the liver is; most people know that it is something to do with detoxification and that it is affected by alcohol abuse. TCM, however, has a different way of understanding the internal organs to western medicine, an understanding which is broader and more functional, so that we tend to distinguish the TCM Liver from the western medicine liver by capitalising the first letter. The Liver as opposed to the liver. The TCM Liver shares some aspects of the western medicine liver, but also includes some other functions, one of which is that it promotes the smooth flow of Qi

As we saw above, Qi flows freely when we are in good health, so that this function of the Liver is very important. If this function is impaired, to a greater or lesser extent, our Qi does not flow so freely and we speak therefore of Liver Qi Stagnation.


Liver Qi Stagnation manifests both physically and emotionally – the word Qi covers mind and body. Emotionally, we may become irritable, moody or even depressed; physically, we may suffer a range of symptoms which may include fatigue, indigestion, nausea, IBS type problems, and headache. For a woman, pre-menstrual problems and/or period pain may follow from Liver Qi Stagnation. Problems stemming from Liver Qi Stagnation tend to come and go, as the Qi flow stops and starts and they tend to be characterised by tightness and tension at some level of our being. Having Liver Qi Stagnation is being uptight.

As we saw above there is not a total overlap between the Liver in TCM and the liver as understood by western medicine. So having Liver Qi Stagnation does not necessarily mean that conventional liver function tests would show up anything abnormal; indeed people who feel ill, or at least not quite right, but who western medicine finds nothing wrong with, are often those with Liver Qi Stagnation.


The Liver is of course affected adversely by excessive consumption of alcohol and greasy food, but more important even than this in most people is that it is quite sensitive to emotional frustration, stress and anger. Liver Qi Stagnation is the characteristic pathology of the modern person, whose pressured and busy life leads to emotional frustration one way or another. So if you do have Liver Qi Stagnation, you are certainly not alone!


Acupuncture is indeed a very useful treatment for Liver Qi Stagnation, as it is effective at promoting the smooth flow of Qi and relaxing the Liver. But there are certainly a few things which we can do ourselves to help:

i) Self-expression

As already mentioned, one of the main causes of Liver Qi Stagnation is emotional frustration; we have an innate need for self-expression, and if this is thwarted the free flow of Liver Qi is affected. We need to identify where in our life this is happening and find ways of expressing ourselves there. Clearly this is complex where other people are involved, as we need to take them into account too!

ii) Relaxation

Being always on the go may put us in a constant state of Liver Qi Stagnation, especially if we are continuously pushing our self beyond the limits of our energy. We may need to find a way back to a state of deep relaxation from time to time. Meditation is particularly helpful here

iii) Exercise

When we move, our Qi moves. People with Liver Qi Stagnation often feel better for exercise; in fact they feel energized by it. Whilst most forms of exercise are helpful, refined forms such as T’ai Chi and Qi Gong are ideal. Rather than rely solely on formal exercise, it is also a good idea to incorporate more physical activity into daily life: use the stairs rather than the lift, walk to the shops rather than take the car.


  • Many people in our modern world suffer from Liver Qi Stagnation

  • Qi needs to move smoothly for good health

  • The Liver is responsible for this smooth flow

  • Emotional frustrations are a major cause of Liver Qi Stagnation


  • Acupuncture

  • Self-expression

  • Relaxation

  • Exercise

Written by Vimalaprabha

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