Can Chinese Medicine Help?

July 2011

In one episode of the medical drama “House”, the team thinks that the patient has an autoimmune condition or cancer so they prescribe a whole-body radiation treatment. And later they discover that the patient had an infection, and realize that because they suppressed the body’s immune system with radiation, the patient will die. As the doctor is trying to explain what happened, a tragic conversation takes place. The doctor says, “You are dying because you have an infection and your immune system is not able to deal with it.” The patient replies, “Can’t you give me antibiotics?” The doctor responds, “It is not going to help… Antibiotics work with your immune system; they can’t do anything when your immune system is totally gone.” This reminds me the questions that my patients often ask me about Chinese Medicine. How does acupuncture help to stop an infection in my urinary tract? Do the needles “kill” the bacteria? How do the herbs help to reduce my joint pain? Do the herbs stop the inflammation in the joint? How does the Moxibustion help me to have better energy? Does the heat from moxa stick stoke up the “engine of energy”?

The first question that many patients who come to see me ask is: Can acupuncture and Chinese Medicine treat insomnia, depression, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, headache, menstrual cramp, cancer, stroke, heart problems, arthritis, back pain, Parkinson’s, ulcer, acid reflex, menopausal syndrome, infertility, etc.? The list goes on. How about a condition that my western doctor cannot diagnose? The answer is always both No and Yes.

The answer is “no” because Chinese Medicine doesn’t treat diseases. Yes, you read it right. Chinese Medicine doesn’t treat “diseases”. Most Chinese Medicine practitioners don’t tell you this, but this is very important and may require a different way of looking at things. When you ask “do you treat this illness?” you are thinking in the way of conventional medicine: When you have a headache, you take a painkiller. When your blood pressure is too high, you take a pill to lower it; when you can’t sleep, you take a pill to knock you out; when you have hot flashes, you take some hormonal replacement pills; when you have acid reflux you take a pill to stop the acid; and when you have constipation, you take laxatives to get your bowel to move again. If you feel depressed you will be prescribed anti-depressants, and when you are anxious you are given tranquilizers… Now, imagine, you have headache, high blood pressure, insomnia, hot flashes, acid reflex, constipation, depression and anxiety. You will then have to take painkillers, high blood pressure meds, hormonal replacement therapy, anti-acid meds, laxatives, anti-depressants and tranquilizers. There is usually one pill for one problem. If you have many problems, then you take many pills. Often when I give an herbal medicine to a patient, I explain to patient “this helps with your Spleen System” or “this augments your Blood”. They often ask me again, “what is this for?” Finally when I tell them that it’s for your high blood pressure, they “understand”. The answer is phrased in a “Western-medicine” manner, even though it is now less accurate. This shows our perspective: Medicine is for problems. The antibiotics kill bacteria, anti-viral kills virus, and anti-fugal kills fungus, anti-acid stops acid, and anti-depressant stops depression. It seems to work perfectly, except when you ask the question, “So what happens to my body? How come there are so many problems?” Here is when Chinese Medicine comes in.

When you ask “Can Chinese Medicine help me?” The answer is always “Yes”, because Chinese Medicine treats your “Qi”, not your diseases. Your Qi means your body’s functions and the intelligent “software” that your body “runs” every day of your life. Your body has its own healing ability, which is also built into the program. When your body doesn’t function the way it is supposed to, symptoms occur. In Chinese Medicine, symptoms are treated as signals through which the body tries to communicate with us. We listen to the symptoms in order to find out what is the real problem. Unless there is a life-threatening situation, a Chinese Medicine practitioner’s priority is never simply eliminating the symptoms. And when we do manage symptoms, we always keep the body’s Qi in mind to make sure that what we do will not cause further imbalance for the patients’ Qi. When the body stops functioning properly, the body always tells us in which way the body is malfunctioning.

For example, if you’ve been experiencing fatigue, poor appetite, low spirit, cold hands, and depression, then the practitioner can tell that the body’s Qi is under-functioning. The priority is to boost the body’s Qi to help the body to restore the function. If we don’t help the Qi to restore its function, but only deal with the symptoms, more symptoms will occur. If we boost the Qi, even though we are not dealing with any symptoms directly, as the body starts to function normally again the symptoms will disappear. It is like when you notice that your house is very cold and the water pipes are frozen. Instead of putting space heaters in different rooms to warm up the pipes, you instead check your central heating system and find out why it is not functioning properly. Once the central heating is working, each room will be warm and water pipes will not freeze. Let’s come back to herbal medicine and acupuncture. The herbs don’t directly kill bacteria, and the acupuncture needles don’t kill any germs. What they do is to assist the body’s function to become normal. In Chinese Medicine, over thousands of years, we have developed a very sophisticated system to track different functions of the body through meticulous observation and analysis. Then we use acupuncture, Moxibustion, herbal medicine and other methods to fine-tune the functions to help the body heal. When we stop chasing after symptoms we liberate ourselves from always doing damage-control. We then start answering the question, “What is happening in my body? How can I help my body to heal?”

Let’s come back to the scene in the television series. The doctor made the point very clear: the antibiotics work with body’s immune system. When there is no immune system function at all, no drugs can work. The Chinese Medicine approach is to always make sure that the body’s Qi is strong. Whenever we work with body by using drugs, surgery, herbs or acupuncture, we are always using body’s Qi to do the work. When the Qi is exhausted, nothing will work well. For any treatment we perform, it is essential to ask the question, “in order to achieve this result, what is it going to cost the body?” Often, a treatment that can get rid of the pain or other symptoms relatively quickly while costing the body greatly in long run may not be as ideal as a treatment that supports body’s Qi to heal gradually. If we exhaust the body’s Qi chasing symptoms, and only then wonder what treatment will heal the body, it is often too late to have much effect on the underlying problem.