by Shihan Mary Bolz, L. Ac., M. Sc.
President of Acupuncture Plus in Vacaville, CA
for further info: 707 455-0638
Traditional Chinese medicine has developed over a period of at least 3,000 years and had its beginnings around 5,000 years ago. Acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, and Chinese herbal pharmacology are all a part of this traditional form of medicine.
Thirty years ago, it was nearly impossible to find anyone in the U. S. who knew what an acupuncturist was, let alone trust one to stick a needle in them. Not now. More than three dozen states license acupuncturists; more than 10,000 acupuncturists practice this medicine; and millions of Americans get needled, as well as take herbal medicines, practice Tai Ji, qigong, martial arts and get moxibustion and other treatments given by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Meanwhile, published studies that scientifically validate TCM are starting to pile up.
Not only is TCM gaining attention in the U. S. due to success stores and studies, but also because government and corporate officials are searching desperately for ways to trim the nation’s bloated trillion-dollar healthcare bill. TCM may hold a key. It is less invasive and provokes markedly fewer side effects than the drugs and surgeries typically prescribed; it is less costly (not just to deliver but also, when compared with drugs, to earn FDA approval, which can run hundreds of millions of dollars per drug); it often works as well or better than conventional medicine; and perhaps most important, it promotes disease prevention, which can radically cut healthcare costs.
What the majority of Americans may call traditional medicine is what an Oriental medicine practitioner (doctor) would refer to as modern Western medicine or allopathic medicine, or conventional medicine. In a broad sense, with history of the human race as a whole taken into consideration, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is traditional; allopathic (Western) medicine is modern. Both forms of medicine are legitimate and both have much to contribute to the health of the society.
Archeological finds of the late Shang Dynasty (c. 1000 B.C.) include both acupuncture needles and divination bones on which were inscribed discussions of medical problems. By the 4th century A.D., the medical classics that laid the foundation of Chinese medicine had been written, the most important of which is the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic. Many other medical classics were also produced at this time.
Over this period of time, the techniques of Chinese medicine have undergone extensive refinement. Besides extensive and detailed diagnostic and treatment prescriptions of acupoints, the instruments have also been refined. Acupuncture includes ear needling, scalp, hand, entire body acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, manual acupuncture and electroacupuncture. Depending on the diagnosis, the acupuncturist will utilize the most effective method he/she thinks will benefit the individual’s condition and constitution the most.
In the West, we are accustomed to viewing events in a linear fashion, that is, A causes B which with causes C and D. Classical Chinese thought moves in an entirely different dimension, one in which various phenomena are interrelated as part of a pattern. The West has tended to place different qualities in discrete, non-interchangeable categories. For example, mainstream Western thought posits a Mind/Body dichotomy. To this way of thinking, the Mind and Body are separate entities which sometimes interact with each other. Traditional Chinese thought, on the other hand, tends to view all phenomena as existing along a continuum with two poles. Thus, there are differences of shade but not of kind. In traditional Chinese medicine, mental, emotional and physical illness are closely related, not absolutely different in kin. Traditional medicine takes the entire person into account, both in diagnosis and treatment.
Modern science places a great deal of emphasis on a correct understanding of the body’s structure, and how it changes during the course of disease. Chinese medicine places the emphasis almost totally on function. What happens is considered more important than what something has come to look like.
The root of Traditional Chinese Medicine and of the Chinese world view itself, lies in the concept of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are emblems of the fundamental duality in the universe, a duality which is ultimately unified. Take the Tai Ji Symbol (the Yin and Yang symbol), for example. This emblem signifies the two seemingly contradictory, yet at the same time, complementary phenomena in nature. The black signifies Yin and the white signifies Yang. The two colors coil around, fade into, and penetrate each other. Both are necessary for the whole to exist. The white portion of the emblem contains a small black circle and the black portion of the emblem contains a small white circle. Each are contained within each other. That means that black is not all black and contains some white and vice versa. It also means they balance each other to form the large circle, the whole. As opposed to the linear thinking of the West, Oriental thinking is circular, nature is a cycle. There is no beginning nor end, one can not tell where the other started, but there is a constant course of change. Yin changes into yang and yang changes into yin. An example is the cycle of the seasons, spring changes into summer and summer into fall, etc., and the entire cycle starts over again. Life changes to death and death to new life. This is the cycle of nature.
Oriental medical practitioners study to obtain a profound understanding of the cycle of nature. With this understanding, not only can health change to disease, but disease can change to health. It is only natural. For disease to change to health, one must have a good understanding of nature, where the imbalance is and know how to bring that balance back. Disease is merely an imbalance and need not be anything permanent. Indeed, it is unnatural lifestyles and living against nature that causes many of our modern illnesses and unhappiness. All we need to see is where we have caused the imbalance to occur, and then take action to reverse it.
Since both theory and treatment in Traditional Chinese medicine are very different from their Western counterparts, it is natural that the direction and technique of diagnosis also differ. The Chinese doctor aims at constructing a description of the patient’s body as a whole, using patterns or manifestation types. The four principal categories of Chinese diagnostic techniques are 1) looking 2) listening/smelling 3) asking and 4) palpating. All the information needed by a Chinese medical doctor in diagnosing disease and determining treatment is encompassed by these four areas of inquiry. Without a proper understanding of the four methods of diagnosis, optimal use of any Chinese therapeutic technique , including acupuncture, is impossible.
Two very important methods of inspection are tongue and pulse diagnostic methods. The tongue is like a map of the entire human body, reflecting the general health of the organ and meridian systems of the person. The acupuncturist looks at the color and the shape of the tongue body and the coating of the tongue. Of course, a practitioner must be thoroughly trained in what to look for and have a thorough and accurate understanding to interpret the meaning of what he/she is seeing. Tongue diagnosis is a very reliable method for testing the state of a person’s health and any problems with certain organs of the body.
Another very important method of diagnostics is pulse diagnosis. There are six main positions on a person’s wrists at three different levels: the surface, the middle layer, and the deep layer. The six positions also reflect the state of the different internal organs of the body. The acupuncturist looks for 27 different pulse qualities that reflect the balance of the Energy and general state of health. Imbalances in the body will readily appear in the pulses. It does take years of practice and a thorough understanding to be able to do this. Don’t plan on learning this overnight.
Chinese herbal medicine is also a powerful adjunct to acupuncture care. Herbs can strengthen your body, or clear it of excess problems like a cold, fever, or acute pain. They can be cleansing. They can be builders of your entire system. Chinese herbal medicine treats the full range of human disease. It treats acute disease, like intestinal flu and the common cold, as well as chronic diseases, such as allergies, gynecological disorders, autoimmune disease, chronic viral diseases, degenerative diseases due to aging, etc. In particular, Chinese herbal medicine is especially good for promoting the body’s ability to heal and recuperate. Herbs can be used daily and they are something each individual can do for themselves at home, after having the correct formula prescribed by a trained Chinese herbal medicine practitioner. They are not something that should be taken randomly without a skilled practitioner’s advice. Chinese herbs are administered in their whole form, powder, or pills. Any of these forms, though, consists of the entire part of the plant: i.e. the root, the leaves, the bark, the stems, the flowers, etc. Because they are whole food and complete, there are very little to no side effects. The herbs in their natural state are more suitable for gradual absorption and metabolization in the body. The active ingredients are accompanied by other natural ingredients as nature endowed the plant. This prevents the shocks to the human system caused by concentrated chemical substances such as medications, where only the active ingredients are put in pill form.
What is acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine good for? Everything! Traditional Chinese medicine is general medicine. Any condition that you would go to an M.D. for, you can go to an acupuncturist for. Most people are aware that it is great for chronic pain management, but not quite as aware it is great for acute injuries, as well. It also treats the gamut of all diseases, both physically and mentally. The approach is quite different from that of Western medicine. This is not to imply that modern allopathic medicine is not needed, but to inform the public that they have a lot more to look at for healthcare.
In some cases, Oriental medicine works when modern medicine doesn’t because it looks for the cause of the disease, that is to say, the imbalance in that particular person. For example, what is a diagnosis in modern Western medicine, is just a symptom in Oriental medicine. Take diabetes for example, as diagnosed by Western medicine. If five different people are diagnosed with diabetes mellitus Type II, for the Oriental medicine practitioner, he/she may have five different Oriental medicine diagnoses. These are the causes of the diabetes mellitus in each of these people. The condition or pattern is treated, not just the disease. Each of these five people may have five different treatment plans and different herbal formulas to take, depending on their pattern of dis-ease (imbalance).
Another fact that the general public may not be aware of about acupuncture and oriental medicine, is that it is highly preventive medicine. People usually go to the acupuncturist last, after they have tried all other modalities without success. But if they would think to go to an acupuncturist first, as part of their regular checkups, they may be able to prevent major health issues and even surgery.
This does not mean that acupuncture and Chinese herbs are a panacea or a quick fix, or that a person will just be “fixed” by getting acupuncture treatments. Lifestyle, exercise, habits, and what people eat are very important for maintaining good health. By going to an acupuncturist, a person may expect results, naturally. Some people get results immediately, others take time. Some people only need a few treatments, maybe only three to six. Some may need weeks, months, and even years, of treatment if their condition has been long-term, chronic, and severe. Health is also a way of life and an acupuncturist may also provide education as to lifestyle.
None of this is to imply that everyone “fire” their M.D. and go to only the acupuncturist. Both are valid forms of medicine and have their strong and weak points. In the hospitals in China, Western and traditional Eastern medicine work side by side. Each patient has both types of doctors and they work together without conflict. The goal is to help the patient. In Japan the most common form of healthcare is also modern allopathic medicine, but the acupuncturists are extremely busy, seeing 35-40 patients a day and there are many in every city. People have a choice in Japan, and they do make use of their choices. It is just a matter of more education needed in the United States.
In case you are thinking, “Oh, no, not needles, not me,” you may be comparing the sensation of needles to the larger hypodermic needles given for injections. Acupuncture needles are not in the same category. They are very thin in diameter, like fine hair, and also are filiform (solid), not hollow. Most people find they are quite painless and can actually feel quite relaxed during and after treatment.
You may look forward to monthly features on Oriental medicine. Next time we will be talking about how to see the balance (or imbalance) in nature and your own body and how to apply the concepts to your own health.
If you haven’t thought about an acupuncturist for your healthcare, now may be just the right time.