OVERVIEW OF CHINESE MEDICINE

 

Chinese medicine has existed for over 5,000 years. It’s both the oldest form of medicine practiced in the world today and a dynamic, living system that has evolved over the millennia, with rigorous, well-defined methodologies to preserve health and diagnose, treat, and prevent illness.
 
As a holistic medicine, it takes the state of the whole person into account, body, mind, emotions, and spirit, not just the apparent disease. In fact, a western diagnosis is of limited  help in determining a patient’s condition from a Chinese medical perspective, since the “disease” is just one collection of symptoms among many that may define the particular pattern(s) of disharmony affecting the person. Accordingly, ten people with the same western diagnosis may be treated in ten different ways with Chinese medicine. Conversely, ten people with very different western diagnoses may be treated identically with Chinese medicine, if the underlying cause is determined to be the same according to Chinese diagnostics.
 
No one wakes up one morning to find they have a serious illness they did not have the day before. Illness like cancer, diabetes, hypertension, or arthritis typically develop over many years. Throughout the various stages of their development, signs and symptoms may be observed by a trained, experienced practitioner of Chinese medicine, and can be treated to prevent the full onset of those conditions or reverse them once they arise. As in conventional western medicine, treatment may be offered to provide symptomatic relief, but it’s not until the underlying disharmony is resolved and the body is brought back into harmonious balance that restored health, rather than simply a management of symptoms, is truly achieved.
 
Any branch of Chinese medicine can be very effective when used alone, but it is even more effective when combined with others. It may also be safely and effectively combined with conventional allopathic medicine. The various branches of Chinese medicine (acupuncture, herbal medicine, medical qigong, and more) are described next.


BRANCHES OF CHINESE MEDICINE


ACUPUNCTURE
Acupuncture is the art and science of encouraging the body to improve function and promote natural healing by inserting very thin needles into precise points along energy pathways called channels or meridians. Meridians run in regular, defined patterns through the body and transport vital energy or life force, which is called qi (pronounced “chee”). Qi nourishes all organs and body tissues, and is the functional energy of all life processes.
 
When blocked, qi can congest in one part of the body, causing an excess, or become restricted and deficient in other areas. It may also flow counter to its normal direction. These disruptions may be caused by pathogens, environmental factors, trauma or injury, as a side effect of medications, from lifestyle factors such as overwork, poor diet, lack of adequate rest, or stress, and from lingering or excessive emotional states. These disturbances create various patterns of disharmony, which cause the symptoms of disease. Where qi flows freely, disease cannot exist.
 
As the most familiar branch of Chinese medicine in the US, acupuncture has demonstrated that it can be effective as the only treatment of choice for many conditions, or may be used in combination with other treatments across an even broader spectrum of medical and surgical disorders. It is especially effective when combined with the other branches of Chinese medicine.
 
Acupuncture is also very useful in resolving physical problems arising from tension, stress and emotional conditions. It’s a very effective therapy for the treatment of addictions, ranging from food addiction to hard drugs, and will help purge the body of addictive substances or other toxins. NADA (The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) has well-defined protocols established for this purpose.
 
A number of adjunctive therapies are commonly used in the practice of acupuncture, such as moxibustion, cupping, and electro-acupuncture. These are used to either amplify the effect of the acupuncture treatment, or to provide a healing dimension that acupuncture alone may not. They are only included when appropriate to the needs of the patient.

Course of Treatment
The number of treatments needed differs from person to person, and from the nature of the condition being addressed. For complex or long-standing conditions, one or two treatments per week for several months may be required, and then gradully reduced as the condition improves. Some degenerative conditions may require ongoing weekly treatments over a long period of time. For acute problems, usually fewer visits are necessary, and for general health maintenance, four or five visits a year are typically recommended. In most cases, the number of treatments required may be reduced by the inclusion of Chinese herbs, nutritional supplements, dietary changes, and/or practicing specific self-care exercises.
 
In the past 2,000 years, more people have been successfully treated with acupuncture than with all other health modalities combined.
 
 
How Acupuncture Works: Western Medicine Perspectives
The modern scientific explanation, while still incomplete and with its own particular bias, offers some useful insight. Needling acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to cause the release of chemicals (endorphins, neurotransmitters, neurohormones, endocrine and exocrine hormones) into the muscles, organs, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals will either change the experience of pain, or trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones which influence the body’s internal regulating systems. The improved biochemical balance results in stimulating the body’s natural healing abilities, promoting physical and emotional health. Experiments have shown that needling non-acupuncture points does not produce these results.
 
The following is a short list of technology-based verifications of some of acupuncture’s structural foundations.
•Meridian pathways have been observed objectively. When injecting radioactive dye into a meridian, the dye flows along the expected meridian pathway, which does not correspond to any other anatomical structure.
•Electrical conductivity of acupoints is measurably different than that of surrounding tissue.
•Brain imaging via PET and MRI has demonstrated that there is a correlation between acupuncture stimulation and the activation or suppression of corresponding regions of the brain cortex.
 
Interestingly, now that the human genome has been decoded, western medical science is  now beginning to look at treatments based on each person’s genetic bio-individuality. This is an encouraging development, and may help bridge the gap between Western and Chinese medicine, which has always treated each patient as a unique individual. The decoding of the human genome also corroborates what the daoists have always maintained: we are genetically designed to live between 120-140 years. Without needing the knowledge of genetics, the daoists have simply stated, “If you die before 120, you die too young.”

HERBAL MEDICINE

Chinese herbal medicine is older than acupuncture, and central to the practice of Chinese medicine. Although plant sources make up the largest part of its pharmacopoeia, substances from the animal and mineral kingdoms are also used. Some of the more familiar (to Westerners) notorious animal products are no longer used in the US, like rhino horn and bear gall bladder. Others, like tiger bone, oyster shell, earthworm, and mantis egg casing, are still in common use. Some minerals like cinnabar were once widely used but are now recognized as toxic and so not in use in the US, but other minerals like talc, gypsum, and hematite are still found in Chinese “herbal” formulas.
 
With thousands of years of research and development, it’s a highly refined, elegant branch of Chinese medicine, and takes into account even more variables than are considered when employing acupuncture alone. Its meticulous detail and many well-defined treatment strategies make Chinese herbal medicine significantly different than its Western herbal counterpart. A Chinese herbalist will put together a more complex, balanced formula that takes the whole person into account, addressing the overt symptoms, secondary issues, underlying causes, and the constitutional needs of the individual, based on a detailed diagnosis. Used this way, herbal medicine is very safe, very effective, and usually produces no side effects.
 
Forms of Chinese Herbs
Traditionally, Chinese herbal formulas were primarily in the form of loose herbs and other medicinal substances, which were decocted into very potent teas. This approach is still favored by many herbalists since it allows for meticulous customization of the formula content and dosages, which may be easily varied over time as the patient’s condition changes. Arguably, this method produces the strongest and most predictably accurate therapeutic effect, since the effects of most of the formulas described in the Chinese pharmacopeia were derived from decoction. The downsides of this approach include the amount of time spent brewing the decoction, and the way they smell and taste, which many westerners find unpleasant. There may also be more variability in the quality of the herbs used, since that’s not standardized. Differences in soil composition, specific geography, length of the growing cycle, and even the time of harvest, among other factors, all influence the potency of the herbs.
 
Chinese herbal formulas are also available in tablet form, and varieties of herbal tablets or pills have existed for hundreds of years. Since these tablets are still herbs and not synthesized, concentrated pharmaceutical drugs, many more tablets a day must be consumed than what most westerners are used to. Depending on the form and size of the tablets, anywhere from nine to thirty six tablets may be required daily. These are pre-made formulas and so not able to be customized, but there are literally hundreds of formulas available in tablet form, so a close match may be readily found, and often two formulas may be used simultaneously for a more targeted outcome. Pills were used historically most often in chronic conditions requiring an extended course of treatment. That may be one reason an herbalist might select tablets for their US patients, but a more common reason is that westerners are used to taking pills, and so will be more likely to continue using herbs if given in that form.
 
Herbs are also available as tinctures (usually an alcohol-based extract which may be added by dropper to a cup of hot water), granules (powders which are dissolved in a cup of hot water and then drunk), and as medicinal wines. Although granules are available as complete formulas, they are also available as single herbs. This makes granules a good compromise between loose herbs and tablets, since they are more readily customizable by adding one or two single herbs to a formula, they don’t make the house smell of herbs, and they don’t require any cooking time on the part of the patient. In the case of medicinal wines, the wine itself often supplies a part of the therapeutic effect, and is used in a much narrower range of applications than tablets, tincture, and granules.

MEDICAL QIGONG


In medical qigong (loosely translated as “energy work”), the physician uses their own qi to directly influence the patient’s qi without needles. This is a specialized type of treatment, and not many acupuncturists or herbalists are trained to practice in this way. Treatment principles and outcomes are similar to those of acupuncture. This gentle yet powerful modality is well suited to children, animals, those very emotionally or energetically sensitive, and those who want the benefits of acupuncture but would prefer to avoid needles.
 
Another type of medical qigong involves training the patient to perform qigong exercises that are specific to their health needs. This approach is more common in the US than emitting qi as described above. It’s a very useful adjunct to other therapies, since a patient is able to practice it daily to improve their health.
 
Distance Healing
A more specialized subdivision of medical qigong is Distance Healing. Here, the qigong doctor may be across the room or on the other side of the world.

To learn more about qigong in general, click here.

PRESCRIPTIVE EXERCISES

Drawing from qigong, taiji, various types of Chinese self care exercises, and Daoist and Indian yoga, these exercises can address specific health needs and release local qi obstructions, targeting the back, neck, a particular limb or muscle group, joint, organ, or nerve. They may be combined to improve overall health and longevity, promote mental focus and emotional calm, or increase energy. As with Medical Qigong exercises, they’re a good choice for self motivated people who want to take a more active role in their health care.
 
To learn more about these various exercise approaches, click here.

OTHER ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES


THERAPEUTIC BODYWORK

Conventional deep massage and sports massage promotes relaxation, improves circulation, relieves injured or tight muscles and accelerates muscle repair. Zero Balancing and Craniosacral Therapy address functional problems arising at the junction of structure and energy, and work with the patient on many levels simultaneously. Combination body therapies can address a wide range of somatic, emotional, and energetic issues. When included with range of motion and stretching techniques, musculoskeletal alignment is improved, body awareness increases, and many degenerative changes may be prevented or reversed. This becomes particularly effective when combined with acupuncture, herbal medicine, and personalized prescriptive exercise programs.

DIET

Diet has been the cornerstone of health and the first choice of treatment since the beginning of recorded medical history. In addition to their commonly understood caloric content and nutritional value, foods have therapeutic qualities similar to, but generally weaker than, herbs. Because we eat every day, adding some foods on a regular basis while eliminating others can help restore balance, improve organ functions and significantly benefit health.

NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTATION

Nutritional supplements, when used to improve specific health challenges, are referred to as orthomolecular medicine, a western approach. First, specific supplements are used to relieve symptoms or complaints, often as effectively as drugs, but safely and without toxic side effects. Second, supplements may be recommended to make up for dietary inadequacies, to make sure that basic nutritional needs are met. Finally, supplements can be included to optimize health, improve immune function, and promote longevity, slowing or reversing many of the symptoms of aging.
 
To achieve the desired results of increasing longevity, the body must first be free from debilitating disease, and ideally be in a state of relatively good health. Some longevity supplements assist the body in these processes as they begin their job of increasing longevity, but in all cases it’s important to make sure the body has all the high-quality nutritional building blocks it needs to affect repair and regeneration from the cellular level on up.



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