January 1, 2014 - “Healing is shaped not only by the clean lines of theory, but also by the messy contingencies of practice; not only in the exclusive domain of licensed doctors, but also in the competition of diverse types of healers,” say the authors of Chinese Medicine and Healing (Harvard University Press, 2013).
Over the centuries, different cultures developed a multitude of ways of understanding and treating illnesses. One notable example, increasingly popular worldwide, is Chinese medicine. This is a healing system which first appeared in written form about 100 B.C., and from which Western healthcare professionals—and patients—might learn.
What is Chinese medicine?
It is a system of medicine partly based on the idea that an energy called “Qi” (or “Chi”) lives in a dynamic state within and outside the body. The balance of this energy describes the physiology and psychology of specific mental and physical processes and emotional states.
Qi flows along pathways in the body called meridians. If the flow of Qi along these meridians is blocked or unbalanced, proponents believe, illness can occur.
Potential imbalances along the meridians can be caused by external forces such as wind, cold, or heat. Internal forces—including emotions of joy, anger or fear—compound the external forces and when combined with lifestyle factors such as poor diet, too little sleep, or excess alcohol, cause aberrations in the flow and subsequently disease.
Another important concept in Chinese medicine is the concept of yin and yang. In this approach, all things, including the body, are composed of opposing forces called yin and yang. Health is said to depend on the balance of these forces.
In other words, Chinese medicine looks at the balance of body, mind, and spirit to determine how to restore Qi, the yin-yang balance, and good health.
People use Chinese medicine to treat many illnesses, from asthma and allergies, to cancer and infertility. Chinese doctors may use several types of treatment to restore Qi balance. Their therapies include acupuncture; acupressure; Chinese herbs, roots and animal substances; changes in diet; massage; and meditation.
One of the best-known concepts of Chinese medicine is acupuncture, which involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. Acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain.
By inserting needles into specific points along the body’s meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance. In contrast, many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. This stimulation appears to boost the activity of your body's natural painkillers and increase blood flow.
According to a National Institute of Health survey, about 4 million U.S. adults and children used acupuncture in the previous year.
Acupuncture has been the most studied of Chinese medicine treatments and is accepted as a therapy for certain conditions in the United States. Acupuncture is generally safe when done by a certified acupuncturist. The treatments can be expensive and time-consuming. Promising results have been found for the use of acupuncture in treating nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, post-surgery pain, and pregnancy. Acupuncture also may be useful for other conditions such as headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.
Like conventional medicines, Chinese herbal medicines may also cause side effects, trigger allergic reactions, or interact with other prescription and nonprescription medicines or herbs. Before you use any Chinese therapies, be sure to tell your health professional about any prescription, nonprescription, or other natural supplements you are taking. And always tell your doctor if you are using an alternative therapy or if you are thinking about combining an alternative therapy with your conventional medical treatment.
These various methodologies of treating illness are based on widely different points of view about sickness and health.
Practices in the Far East view health as the harmonious interaction of entities which regulate digestion, breathing, aging, locomotion, circulation, and thinking with the environment around us. There is little emphasis on anatomy, physiology, or traditional western medical science, which developed from the Renaissance age. When looked at through a modern lens, we know a population’s health is more dependent on an environment of many socio-economic factors than variations in the physiology of any single individual. (Chinese medicine may have developed before its time!)
But how can we be sure what works and what doesn’t—or what improvement is based solely on a placebo effect? Just giving someone an inert substance and telling them this is going to alleviate some suffering makes a difference in outcome.
Evidence-based medicine and clinical trails are still lacking, for the most part, to compare Chinese medicine to Western medicine. Then again, even in Western medicine, all evidence-based practices are not fully embraced or implemented.
Is Chinese medicine safe? According to the website WebMD, research in China and worldwide has shown Chinese medicine to be helpful and safe for many types of illness. But because Chinese medicine differs from Western medical practice in diagnosis and treatment methods, it is difficult to apply Western scientific standards to it.
For example, in Western medical practice, any two people with a similar infection (such as sinusitis) may be treated with a standard course of antibiotics. In Chinese medicine, each person might receive a different treatment for the same illness depending on the estimation of that person's Qi and yin-yang balance.
I can understand why there is still a fair amount of confusion about the claims and approaches of differing healthcare treatments.
However, Chinese medicine has withstood the test of time. If its therapies were worthless, most likely they would have disappeared. The fact that they remain and are growing should make all of us more interested.
Therefore, the two essential questions are:
- If these practices are indeed efficacious, how do they work?
- Can we combine the best of eastern and western medicine to obtain better results with fewer side effects?
Stay tuned as complementary and alternative medicine mature, and we start to embrace many other traditions. I do believe that in the end, evidence-based medicine—that which is based on science—will be best for all concerned. We just need to keep our minds open about understanding those “clean lines of theory” and “messy contingencies of practice” as we evolve.
Clearly, we still have much to learn.