Chinese medicine has peaked in popularity in the West in the past half a century, greatly due to its integrative approach, in which the totality of the person is taken into consideration, thus making it a complete holistic medicine.
Over the centuries, Chinese Medicine developed a variety of healing modalities, the best known being acupuncture and herbalism, alongside massage, bone setting, diet as well as self-cultivation energy exercises. The principles that are at the base of classical Chinese medicine and the Chinese thought system concern the overall world-view and understanding of cyclical and seasonal evolutions, natural life transformations and changes, as well as notions of health and disease.
The 5000 year old Chinese medical concepts are attributed to three legendary figures, Fu Xi, She Nong and Huang Di; whereas the philosophical and spiritual aspects of Chinese medicine find their roots in the teachings of three masters, Laozi, Confucius and Buddha, around 500 BC. Deep understanding of the human being and what causes disease, led the early Chinese to look at inner causative factors, emotions and mental states. Today, any of the Chinese medical methods may be applied individually and even symptomatically without necessarily involving the mental-emotional aspects of a patient. But judging from the ancient texts and teachings, the superior doctors and healers considered the human being in his or her totality, integrating all three dimensions: physical, energetic and psychological. This may also explain the emphasis on self-transformational practices and especially the cultivation of the mind, often stressed in the older texts. Western modern theories in psychology and psycho-therapy, have very definitely contributed to a better understanding of the Chinese ancient concepts, and they have the advantage of offering the Western therapist more adept tools in dealing with such problems.
Ancient Chinese medicine relied on a sophisticated diagnostic system, mostly developed to predict an imbalance in order to prevent disease. This preventative strategy in medicine was praised as being superior to actually treating a manifested disease.
Traditional versus Classical Chinese Medicine (TCM – CCM)
In the past decades Chinese medicine has come to be known as “TCM” (Traditional Chinese Medicine), a term coined during the early years of Communist China, to distinguish it from Western allopathic medicine. Many of the ancient theories and concepts were purged out in an attempt to make Chinese Medicine more scientific and more “medicalised”.
Chinese Medicine in the West
In the West, the Chinese medical concepts found a common ground of comprehension in France and in Germany in Hahnemann’s homeopathic theories. In the early 1900’s many homeopathic doctors in France took readily to acupuncture thus creating a European brand of acupuncture. Both, homeopathy and acupuncture are considered “vibrational/energy” medicines and both approach the human being in a multi-dimensional manner. As such both have been strongly opposed and contested by main-line allopathic medicine as not having a material and scientific base. Furthermore the ancient and foreign language and concepts of Chinese medicine have made it difficult for the modern Western physician to accept and to incorporate it into the Western therapeutic arsenal. In spite of scores of scientific studies, demonstrating the effectiveness of acupuncture, the Western medical body remains sceptical.
Today we are at an exciting turning point, where nuclear physics and Western medical technologies are capable of demonstrating not only the veracity of the ancient Chinese concepts, but even the physical reality of acupuncture channels and points. (see link).
Chinese Medicine as an Integrative Medicine
It is my strong belief that in the very near future, Chinese medicine will become part of integrated medical practices. The main debate should not revolve around the opposition of the Eastern and Western medical approaches, but it should rather explore the areas of efficiency of each method and select the most appropriate, least harmful and most economic therapeutic approach for the patient.
Acupuncture: is probably the best known of the Chinese healing methods, in which fine (hair-like), pre-sterilised disposable needles are placed in the appropriate point to re-establish or balance the flow of energy (Qi), in a particular channel or area. Practiced correctly, by a well-trained practitioner, acupuncture is safe and relatively painless.
Auriculotherapy: The whole body is represented on the ear. The ear points are selected based on classical indications and point reactivity, by pressing on the point or by modern point-detectors. Stimulation may be achieved by needle, Laser, light or even simple pressure.
Moxibustion: The main principle in Moxibustion is to stimulate an acupuncture point by the application of heat, usually obtained by the combustion of a substance, quite often Mugwort (Artemisia).
Friction (Gua Sha): consisting of rubbing an area in order to release retention and stagnancy; it is quite popular and widely used due to its simplicity and relative safety.
Tuina/ Anmo Massage: Manual techniques are utilised to stimulate acupuncture points and to achieve specific reactions
Chinese herbal medicine: is probably the most sophisticated traditional herbal medicine in the world. It covers a very large materia medica including not only plant but also animal and mineral material. Its originality lies in combining single substances into highly complex prescriptions, which traditionally were prepared as decoctions, pills, syrups or medicinal wines but today are most often freeze-dried and given as pills or powders.
Chinese Dietetics: Similar to Chinese herbal medicine, all foods have energetic properties, hence a specific action. The combination of these actions is utilized in therapy. Wrong diet may cause disease or prevent the healing from taking place; therefore it is important to change eating habits and adapt them to the lifestyle of a person.
Energetic exercises; Qi Gong: Modern Qi Gong includes breathing exercises, life style, diet and herbs, as well as gymnastic exercises. It is a technique of self-cultivation and enhances health and quality of life.
Cultivation of the mind: Chinese medicine has emphasized the continuity of the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the human being. Correct mental attitude was considered the main key to health. In other words, the mind affects the body, and one’s beliefs and attitudes shape the world and the experiences and hence create one’s reality. Any fixation or identification on pain or disease will create more suffering and a stronger imprint, further giving “density” to the disease.
The question of what is the best Chinese modality, acupuncture, herbs, diet or Tui Na massage, is another interesting debate.
Acupuncturists pretend to treat everything with needles, moxa and cupping; herbalist would contend that all is treatable with herbs, whereas manual therapists, only swear by the magic of the fingertips. I believe that ultimately it is not the method but the degree of training, experience and talent of the therapist that makes the difference.
Without getting involved in controversial discussions, there are some general guidelines that may be helpful:
●Acupuncture and its panoply of complementary methods, moxa, cupping, Gua Sha, bleeding, is best suited for conditions involving peripheral pain and consequences of channel blockages. Skilled acupuncturists can also reach the deeper energetic layers and affect the organic functions, the psyche and the mind and even the constitutional levels.
●Herbal medicine, has the great advantage of supplying “substance”, and finds its main indication in the treatment of the “Vital Substance” deficiencies, but it is also quite effective in resolving accumulations, especially of Dampness and Phlegm.
●Diet, was not traditionally classified as a Chinese therapeutic tool. I personally believe that diet is not medicine, but that wrong diet can cause disease, and that inappropriate diet can prevent a cure form happening. Dietary advice should therefore be part of all Chinese modalities.
●Tui Na/ An Mo massage, based on the same principles as acupuncture, finds its indications in musculo-skeletal conditions, and is an ideal tool for patients or children who may not want to be needled, or the elderly, or as a complement to acupuncture. A skilled Tui Na therapist can access the same depths as a good acupuncturist.
●Qi Gong, is primarily practised as a life style modality, to maintain health, quiet the mind and prevent disease. With the practice of Qi Gong, the patient is empowered to take into their own hands their disease and healing. Qi Gong practice affects the deepest energy structures of the person, the Jing level, and can produce changes where all the other therapeutic modalities may fail. Hence it may show good results observed in pathologies which have damaged the Jing level, such as cancer, post-traumatic stress disorders or childhood abuse.
●Psycho-energetic work, although entirely based on the classical Chinese concepts, is not in reality an individualised method of Chinese medicine. The inner causes of disease, the emotions, have been historically recognised; in fact the Confucian principles of “Cultivation of the mind”, or the Daoist or Buddhist concepts of emotional transformation, underline their importance. Yet no systematic approach has been offered in the texts, in spite of the psycho-emotional indications of many of the acupuncture points. I strongly believe that today we have not only access to the wisdom of the ancient traditions but also to many modern day therapy methods, and should use both to help our patients deal with and resolve their deeper conflicts and sources of their pathologies.
What can Chinese Medicine treat?
Chinese medicine can “Treat” any condition but not “Cure” everything All holistic medicines, such as Chinese medicine, treat the person not the disease, hence anybody may benefit from the range of therapeutic modalities offered by Chinese medicine. Pathological processes, before getting to the organic and physical stage, have a period during which the symptoms described by the patient do not yet have a physical manifestation. Various medical explorations such as X-rays, scans and laboratory tests may remain inconclusive, while symptoms may be falling into clear TCM patterns. At this stage Chinese medicine may cure a disease, providing the causative factors and the deeper roots of the disease are eradicated. Once the disease has become organic, that is, the physical damage has become apparent with the presence of arterial plaques and stenosis, joint deformities, wearing of cartilage and bone, or the development of tumours or cancer, the pathology is much harder to reverse. At this stage a prognosis of cure is much harder to make, although the person can always be treated and symptoms may still be alleviated.
Which Medicine, which Method?
In the more affluent societies, the biggest dilemma facing a patient today is which medicine to choose from. In the past century allopathic medicine with its great leaps of progress in surgery and synthetic pharmacology, has been saving lives where older traditional methods were incapable of doing so. However, the price to pay for this rapid evolution is high. The dangers, inherent to side effects and combined toxicity of chemicals, are taking their toll. Massive immunisations and antibiotic therapy, is weakening the natural resources of the population, the Jing-Qi, while strengthening the infectious agents. I believe the problem should be looked at differently, not as one approach versus another, but rather, which medicine or method for a specific person and their condition in a given context. To put it simply, the question should be, who is it we are treating, rather than what are we treating. A particular infection, presently treated with a specific antibiotic, may be handled differently depending on whether we are treating a child, a robust adult, an elderly person or a pregnant mother. The debate is very limited when the only tools we have at our disposal are chemical compounds that are matched to a particular diagnostic label. As the famous saying goes, “when the only tool I have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!”
For the sake of simplification, we could group all existing therapeutic modalities into three groups:
●Mechanical medicine, including osteopathy, the variety of chiropractic methods, physical therapy, and the more traditional “bone setting” modalities.
●Vibrational medicine, which covers, acupuncture, traditional herbal medicine, homeopathy, ayurveda, shamanic healing, sound therapy, chromotherapy, and scores of more recent methods.
Each of these groups of medicines has its particular sphere of action, overlapping with the other two. The question then would be: which is the most appropriate approach for the patient at that particular moment? It is obvious that when we break a leg, we seek a surgeon, not an acupuncturist or a bone-setter. But in the presence of a bacterial infection, are antibiotics the only solution? What are the consequences of an infection treated by softer methods that support the immune system of the person, versus the side effects a particular chemical compound that eradicates the infectious agent but decimates the intestinal flora, and further damages the liver and the kidneys? A particular infection might have catastrophic consequences in a small child or an elderly person, and greatly outweigh the side effects of the chemical drug; therefore the allopathic treatment should be administered. The same infection in a robust and healthy adult could be treated quite differently, supporting the constitution to fight the pathogenic invasion. Understanding the reasons that allowed for the infectious agent to invade the system in the first place and correcting them, would be a more intelligent approach. I believe that in a better health system, patients should have access to all therapeutic modalities, and especially that the practitioners of each of the three medicines should be aware of the other two and may thus better advise the patient as to the best therapeutic modality to choose. For best results, two or even three approaches may be combined.