Master The 'Exterior' - The Chinese Medicine Secret Behind Treating Pain, Headaches, Colds and Skin

Chinese Medicine is most famous for its therapies, in particular Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine and Massage. However, its true power lies in its sophisticated and nuanced understanding of health and disease. Once you are empowered with this understanding and knowledge, therapies are just tools to help you use it.

The idea of ‘the exterior’ of the body is a key idea in Chinese medicine and after reading this short article you will realise how it can be a key part of the solution to many health problems. Get to the end and you’ll be rewarded with a recipe to try for yourself to experiment!

So what is ‘the exterior’ and why is it so important? You can think of the exterior of the body as a barrier that can open and close to help regulate the body. In one sense, the exterior refers to the pores and the skin. When you need to sweat, the pores are more open and when its cold and windy they are more closed. You can also think of the exterior like a pressure valve. If you get too hot for example, it opens to sweat (release pressure).

So this is how it should operate, but what happens when it goes wrong? Well, what about the really common situation where someone needs to wrap up against the wind even in a slight draught, feeling that the wind literally ‘blows right through them’. How about the opposite extreme where even when someone gets very hot, they can’t sweat and a feeling of pressure builds up inside. These are problems of ‘the exterior’.

By ‘releasing’ and ‘regulating’ the exterior’ in the right way, Chinese medicine is able to treat all sorts of issues. Lets take a few examples, Colds, Pain & Headaches and Skin Conditions:

Pain & Headaches. Many types of pain and headaches are seen as problems with the ‘exterior’ in Chinese medicine. Think of, for example, the pounding headache with a feeling of pressure in the head. The Chinese found that if you can reduce this pressure by ‘releasing the exterior’ the pain would very often improve or even go away completely.

Colds and Immunity. When you catch a cold the body will raise its temperature in order to fight off the invading pathogen. What that means in relation to the exterior is that there tends to be an upsurging of heat and pressure to the head, neck and shoulders which is a key location for the exterior. What should happen in a healthy person is that they have a slight sweat and the fever and pressure comes down, a healthy exterior release. However, often this doesn’t happen and many of the cold symptoms remain. By working out why the body didn’t release effectively and stimulating it to do what it needs to do to release, these symptoms can be treated.

Skin Conditions. Many skin conditions are related to some kind of problem of regulation at the exterior of the body. By diagnosing what is going wrong at the exterior we can often treat them.

So the million dollar question is, how do you treat the exterior?

Well, as with everything in Chinese medicine you have to diagnose the problem first and this is where the skill comes in because there are many ways it can go wrong.

In a very simplified way, the basic idea is that the body needs to be able to open and close its pores and equally it needs to be able to both raise and push out this pressure and the sweat fluid as well as gather it in and sink it back in and down. If any part of the chain in those mechanisms goes wrong, you need to address it.

Some people might have very locked down pores so the sweat doesn’t happen. Another person might have lack of sweat but from internal dryness. Another person might have pores that are permanently too open and has a tendency to oversweat or even someone who is so cold inside that there is not enough heat (or Yang Qi) to push the sweat out. There are countless different ways the exterior can malfunction so the way to get the best results is always to see a well trained Chinese doctor.

However, my passion is very much to empower you with the information on how to treat your own conditions as much as possible. So in this article I will give you a couple of tips that work a lot of the time for a lot of common exterior conditions. If you would like to have more detailed knowledge and more techniques with direct experience of how to do them, come along to my talk on Friday 21st February 2020, 6:30pm at West Hampstead Community Centre on this subject.

You can regulate the exterior through acupressure and acupuncture, the easiest way of which is just to press points that directly and immediately release the trapped pressure. You can also treat the exterior with food and herbs and with Qi Gong, energy work and emotional release.

The following techniques are just a sample of the many, many ways to work with the exterior. As I said above, they are generic techniques so may not work every time, but try them next time you feel that you have some trapping in the exterior!

Technique 1 - Common Acupressure Points to Release the Exterior.

You can google these points online. I teach self-acupressure in my classes, so if you want to know more, come along to one in the future. Pressing these points work best when you have trapped pressure in the exterior e.g. a headache with pressure in the head, muscle aches and pains or colds.

Large Intestine 4

Gallbladder 20

Du 16

Technique 2 - Diet and Herbs

Stimulating the body to have a gentle but healthy slight sweat can be a very effective treatment. You can do this with a herbal formula but very often a simple dish like a soup might be enough. I remember the time I felt like a cold coming on, very muggy inside my chest and head and achy in the body. I stopped at a roadside restaurant in Taiwan and had a spicy clear Lamb noodle soup. All the symptoms cleared immediately. In the Chinese thinking, you have the nutrition in the food that boosts the Spleen and Stomach Qi, you have the fluids in the water and then the heat of the soup combined with the spicy flavour pushes all the qi and fluids out to the exterior to have a slight sweat and release.

Ginger and Spring Onion Tea

The classic formula for when you feel a cold coming on is simple a tea with spring onion and ginger. This works on the same principle as above.

Sour Spicy Soup

One of my favourite recipes to do this is from the excellent recipe book Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop. I have adapted a version below. This uses the spiciness of the white pepper, ginger and spring onion to promote the sweat while the sourness prevents you from oversweating. Its also extremely delicious!

Ingredients: 4 dried shiitake mushrooms, 1 litre stock, 15 g ginger, 200g fresh mushrooms, 225g plain white tofu cut into cubes (optional), 1 tbsp cooking oil, 2 tsp light soy sauce, ¼ teaspoons dark soy sauce, salt, 2.5 tbsp chinkiang vinegar, ½ tsp ground white pepper, 1 tsp sesame oil, 2 tbsp finely sliced spring onion greens

Soak the dried shiitake in hot water. Heat up the stock. Cut the ginger into fine slivers. Thinly slice mushrooms. Cut tofu into strips of similar size to the mushrooms.

Heat oil in wok over high flame. Add ginger and dried and fresh mushrooms, stir fry until half cooked. Pour in the stock. Add the tofu, soy sauce, salt to taste. Reduce heat, simmer, add vinegar and pepper. Simmer for 30 seconds more to fuse the flavours. Turn off the heat and add the sesame oil. Pour into a pot and add the raw spring onion greens.

Technique 3 - Qi Gong, Energy and Emotions

Qi Gong is a practice that consists of gentle rhythmic movements that synchronise mind, body and breath. Its gentle appearance belies the great power that it contains to profoundly affect the circulation around the body. These powerful effects can stimulate the body to release its exterior naturally and many find that while doing the exercise they might on occasion have a slight sweat.

Mind and Body are two sides of the same coin in Chinese medicine. What connects them is Qi energy. An emotional release is also a release of trapped Qi energy in the body. When doing energy work like Qi Gong it can happen that pent up emotional energy can be released through crying, anger or laughing after which you can feel not only psychological relief but the amelioration of symptoms associated to a trapped exterior.

I teach Qi Gong and Tai Chi on Mondays and Thursdays at West Hampstead Community Centre if you would like to find out more and experience it for yourself. More information can be found at


One of the key goals of health in Chinese medicine is to maintain balance between extremes of hot and cold on the one hand and dampness and dryness on the other. You could say that we are trying to maintain temperature and fluid balance within the body. When this goes wrong it can be the source of imbalances which eventually lead to a wide variety of symptoms. One of the main ways the body brings temperature and fluids into balance is through regulating the exterior and the sweating mechanism, so understanding this is key to maintaining health.

This is only a short introduction so if you want to really master the exterior come to the talk on Friday 21st February, 6:30 at West Hampstead Community Centre. You will not only learn much more about the exterior but you will get to experience and learn first hand a range of techniques that go beyond this article. You will also get the chance to taste some delicious food and teas! Hope to see you there.

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I practise Acupuncture, Massage and Herbal medicine on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in West Hampstead, drop me a line at or on 07917610596 if you would like to book.

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