3. Introducing Traditional Chinese Medicine
Some people radiate health.
Their hair, skin, and nails shine. Their eyes are clear. They have
a good energy level combined with an even emotional state. Others
don't radiate health. They may catch colds frequently or have a
hard time getting through a day because of poor energy. They may
have chronic pain or poor digestion. If this kind of person goes
to an allopathic physician (a Western-trained M.D.), the physician
will probably run a number of blood tests, do a thorough physical,
and occasionally will find that "nothing is wrong." The
state of health of the person who does not look or feel well is
considered the same as that of the person who clearly looks and
Many people who seek out "alternative
medicine" have had this experience. Others have been diagnosed
as having illnesses that have limited treatments according to allopathic
medicine or whose treatments consist of continuous medicating with
drugs that may have short-term or long-term side effects.
But is Traditional Chinese Medicine
(TCM) "alternative"? It is in the sense that it can be
used as an alternative to allopathic medicine and more and more
people are choosing TCM throughout the West. It is alternative in
the sense that TCM's explanation of the body and its processes is
very different than allopathic models. Also, TCM's methods of diagnoses
are largely unlike those used by allopathic practitioners.
In many ways, however, it is
incorrect to consider TCM "alternative." Given its history
and scope, it is far less "alternative" than the medicine
that is considered conventional in the West. The roots of TCM extend
back over 2500 years. There is an extensive medical literature dating
back to this beginning. Chinese medical scholars familiarized themselves
with this literature and then built on it based on their own clinical
experience and research. For thousands of years TCM has been the
basis of patient care throughout the East. Even in China today,
allopathic medicine and TCM are used together in practice. A part
of their medical school training, Chinese physicians must learn
both medicines. In this sense, TCM is hardly "alternative."
Difference Between Allopathic Medicine and TCM
Allopathic medicine is mainly
focused on structures and materials. When we think about the body
from an allopathic perspective, we think about things that can be
seen and quantified. For example, when we think about blood, we
talk about white cell counts or hemoglobin levels. We talk about
the material aspects of blood. In TCM, we are most concerned with
function. TCM practitioners focus on Qi (vital energy) activity
and consider its movement. When all areas of the body are in proper
balance and Qi flows smoothly, evenly, and calmly, a person will
be healthy. If, for instance, the movement of Qi gets stuck in a
particular area or if there is a Deficiency of Qi, there will be
problems. Qi cannot be quantified. There is no blood test or x-ray
that can detect Qi. Rather, the TCM practitioner must use other
methods to detect if something is wrong.
When a TCM practitioner refers
to Liver or Spleen, people unfamiliar with TCM picture the actual
organ liver or spleen. But when a TCM practitioner says that something
is wrong with Liver, this does not mean that the organ liver is
necessarily sick. The Liver system in TCM covers a much greater
area of the body than simply the actual organ and the TCM practitioner
is once again more focused on function than structure.
Allopathic medicine and TCM are
very different paradigms. It is very difficult to translate between
the two. This is why the diagnosis a person receives from an allopathic
physician is often of little consequence to the TCM practitioner.
For example, if you tell the TCM practitioner you have migraines,
he or she must still ask many questions. Where is the pain exactly?
How long have you had the problem? How would you describe the pain?
What other symptoms accompany the pain? The answers to these and
other questions plus TCM methods of diagnosis (pulse, tongue, nails,
etc.) help the TCM practitioner understand the underlying condition.
There are many different parameters the TCM practitioner uses to
arrive at the underlying condition. This underlying condition (e.g.
Blood Stagnation, Qi Deficiency, Damp-Heat, etc.) is what is treated.
Thus the purpose of treatment is not simply to control symptoms
but rather to restore balance and therefore eliminate symptoms altogether.
This is the main reason it is very difficult to self-treat and self-diagnose
in TCM. It takes years of training and practice to understand the
diagnostic and treatment principles of TCM. A trained TCM practitioner
is best able to diagnose and treat you effectively.
Asking -- A TCM
practitioner wants to know about every symptom you feel. Sometimes
this is a difficult task for patients who are used to seeing allopathic
practitioners that do not require or ask for the same information.
There is no such thing as an insignificant symptom or problem in
TCM. Your TCM practitioner may ask you whether you have a tendency
to feel hot or cold, whether you tend to have a certain taste in
your mouth, about the quality of your sleep and digestion, about
the quality of your stools and urine, whether you have a tendency
toward a certain emotional state (e.g. sadness, depression, anxiety),
whether you have any pain or swelling. Remember that TCM and allopathic
medicine have different ideas about what is normal. In allopathic
medicine, it is considered within normal limits for a woman to have
strong menstrual cramps for two days during her period. In TCM,
this is a significant symptom that offers the practitioner important
Looking -- A
TCM practitioner can tell many things about a person simply by looking.
A TCM practitioners looks at:
Mental Energy (Shen) -- by noting complexion, eyes, state of mind, breathing
Body -- including general body shape (that which we're born with),
long-term constitutional changes (weight and shape, e.g. heavy
or thin? barrel chest?), and short term changes (e.g. skin tone
changes or muscle weakness)
Demeanor -- general bodily movement and movement of body parts
Hair, Face Color,
Eyes, Nose, Ears, Mouth and Lips, Teeth and Gums, Limbs, Skin -- The surface of the body offers information about inner health.
For instance, red eyes, dry lips, or thinning hair, all provide
information. Numerous books have been written on such practices
as hand diagnosis and ear diagnosis in TCM; extensive information
about a patient's health history and current health can be gathered
simply by examining the hands or ears. While ethnic and racial
diversity means that people will have different characteristics
and features, the TCM practitioner looks for what transcends the
range of normal. For obvious reasons, it is best to avoid makeup
when visiting a TCM practitioner.
Tongue -- An extremely important aspect of TCM diagnosis, tongue observation
offers the TCM practitioner vital information. The TCM practitioner
observes the color, shape, and coating of the tongue in order
to learn about the patient's overall condition as well as information
about digestion, circulation, general energy and more. It is best
to avoid consuming anything other than water one half-an-hour
before your visit with a TCM practitioner.
Nails -- Another very important tool for TCM practitioners, nail observation
offers important information regarding general health condition,
emotion, circulation, etc. The practitioner observes the color
of the skin behind the nails, sheen, texture, quality, and the
moons. If you wear nail polish, it is best to remove it before
Hearing and Smelling -- The quality of the patient's voice and breathing may offer the
TCM practitioner clues. Likewise, body smells, such as breath smells,
also provide information. It is best to refrain from using perfumes
or colognes when visiting a TCM practitioner.
Pulse -- Perhaps
the most difficult method of diagnosis in TCM, pulse diagnosis provides
the practitioner with key information. Whereas, in allopathic medicine
the pulse may be taken to identify its rate and whether it is weak
or strong, in TCM, there are 28 different qualities that may describe
a pulse. Also the pulse is taken at three different positions in
both wrists and at three different levels (superficial, middle,
and deep). The right side offers different information from the
left and the six different positions and three different levels
correspond to various areas of the body. Pulse diagnosis is an extremely
intricate method of diagnosis. It is said that pulse diagnosis takes
about ten years to learn.
Methods of diagnosis must be
used together in order to create a whole picture of a person's health
condition. As mentioned before, this idea of a health condition
is very specific to TCM. In allopathic medicine, we think mainly
about symptoms and diseases. For instance, an ulcer is a disease
that causes the symptom of burning pain. In TCM, we must discover
what the underlying condition is that causes the ulcer in the first
place. If we treat the underlying condition, not only will the ulcer
heal, but we will prevent the likelihood of an additional ulcer
or other problems relating to the underlying condition occurring
in the future. Let us consider another example. In allopathic medicine,
a malignant tumor is the disease that needs to be treated. In TCM,
tumors are just a symptom, thus if you remove or destroy the tumor
through surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, you have not treated
the underlying condition that caused the cancer in the first place.
If the underlying condition is treated successfully, not only will
the current symptoms resolve, but the chance of recurrence or metastases
will be dramatically reduced.
Causes of Disease
The TCM practitioner will be able
to determine the underlying condition, but what caused the underlying
condition in the first place? There are many causes of disease according
to TCM. Sometimes it is very clear what caused an underlying condition.
For example, if a person caught a cold and following that developed
a chronic cough, in TCM terms an exterior attack of wind-cold transformed
into an interior Lung condition. However, often the specific cause
of disease is unclear, particularly for long-term chronic problems.
According to TCM, the various causes that disrupt the body's balance
can be divided into three categories ¾ internal causes, external
causes, causes that are neither specifically external nor internal.
Internal Causes -- Any emotion in excess can cause illness. TCM divides emotions
into anger, joy, sadness, worry or "thinking too much,"
fear and shock. It may seem curious that joy could cause illness.
But remember, here we are talking about emotion in excess. It is
normal to have emotional fluctuations and various stresses in day-to-day
living. What is key is how such fluctuations are managed. Excessive
sexual activity, poor diet, and over-exertion (mental and/or physical)
can also cause illness.
External Causes -- In TCM, there are six external pathogens that may enter the exterior
of the body _ Wind, Cold, Heat, Damp, Dry, and Fire. If treated
in a timely and correct way, these external pathogens are easily
dispelled. But if not dispelled, these external pathogens may move
deeper into the body and cause chronic disease.
Other Causes -- These causes do not neatly fall into the categories of internal
and external. They include: weak constitution, trauma/injury, parasites,
poisons, and incorrect treatment.
In the West, many people think
of acupuncture when they think of Chinese medicine. Acupuncture
has received much more press than other methods of treatment in
TCM. Actually, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture are considered
equally important treatments in TCM. They are often used together
and may be used in conjunction with other TCM treatments such as
moxibustion and Tuina. In addition, it is important to recognize
the importance of Tai Qi and Qi Gong which are used for health maintenance
and treatment as well.
Herbs - Traditionally,
herbs have been administered in a number of different forms. The
have been boiled in water and taken as a tea, made into pills, tinctures,
powders, and as topical plasters. Today herbal companies have developed
other forms (capsules, tablets, granule teas, tinctures) that are
more convenient and palatable. Over 1000 herbs are used in TCM.
They are overwhelmingly used in formulas rather than individually.
Acupuncture _ Using very thin, disposable needles, the TCM practitioner will
place needles at specific points on the body in order to rebalance
and unblock the flow of Qi (vital energy). Used to treat both symptoms
and the underlying condition, acupuncture is a powerful medicinal
form. When used in conjunction with herbs, acupuncture will strengthen
and expedite treatment. The needle insertion feels something like
a mosquito bite. Many people find the experience of receiving acupuncture
relaxing and pleasurable.
Moxibustion -- Often combined with acupuncture, moxibustion entails
the use of bundles of dried mugwort in the form of a cone or stick.
The bundles are burned, like incense, and placed at specific points
on the body. Moxibustion has numerous functions, including warming
the Qi of the body in order to increase its flow.
Tuina -- A kind
of external manipulation employing over a dozen different techniques
such as stroking, kneading, rubbing, pressing, knocking, and vibrating,
including many of those techniques used in Shiatsu and acupressure
massage. Tuina is often used as an alternative to acupuncture. It
is based on general TCM theories, including the use of channels
and points. Tuina is excellent for both tonifying (strengthening
the body's resistance) as well as eliminating pathogenic factors.
Tai Qi -- Literally
translates as "supreme ultimate," Tai Qi is practiced
throughout China. There are many forms of Tai Qi, each consisting
of a set of fluid movements that help balance the flow of Qi in
the body, calm the Shen or mind, and promote good health.
Qi Gong -- Literally
translates as "Qi cultivation," Qi Gong is comprised of
static and moving exercises that enable the practitioner to strengthen
and rebalance Qi. Qi Gong can take the form of a ritualized daily
exercise like Tai Qi or can be executed by a medical practitioner
in order to heal patients.
*These statements have not been evaluated by
the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not
intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.