A reader of medical research and the life sciences since 1966, Tessa often reports on the latest research in those fields for others.
My Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine
My introduction to traditional Chinese Medicine arrived quite by accident. I was walking in Camden High Street in London in 2001 and saw a store window that looked a little different. This unusual store appeared to stock stevia, and as I had been desperately looking for it for a while, I entered the store. As I paid for my purchase at the counter, I noted that the "store" was actually a medical clinic. “Oh, you have doctors here?” I asked.
“Yes, we are traditional Chinese healers.”
Always curious, I asked some questions as to the difference between Chinese doctors and Western doctors. I was told that TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) measured the Qi of the body by taking the pulse, and the state of the body by looking at the tongue.
“Your first appointment is free,” the receptionist said.
“Oh, can you heal a post nasal drip?” I asked. No Western doctor had been able to.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Let me call a doctor for you.”
And thus, I met the darling of the London Chinese medicine set, Dr. Chen.
Dr. Chen of Acumedic, London
Dr. Chen was a small, short lady with a friendly smile. She introduced herself and then took my wrist. She held her fingers to it for a minute, then asked me to open my mouth to see my tongue.
She then turned to me and said, “Are you very tired all the time?”
“Yes,” I replied. I have been going to doctors about it for more than twenty years. "Can you heal it?” I asked. My post nasal drip was quite forgotten.
“How long have you had it?” she asked.
I told her. “Can you heal it?”
“Yes,” she replied, “but it will take a long time because you have had the condition for a long time.”
“How long?” I asked, thinking to myself that if it took a year, I really didn’t care. I had already wasted two decades of my life being too tired to move.
“Three months,” she said.
A Documentary on Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine by the BBC
I saw Dr. Chen twice a week for the next three months, but my tiredness vanished for the first time in twenty-two years at our very first acupuncture session. Initially, I had a two-hour session with both Dr. Chen and a panel of student doctors. Then they conferred, and then Dr. Chen inserted some needles into my body and left me for an hour.
Afterwards, she prescribed the most terrible, horrible tasting herbs you can imagine. She taught me how to prepare it, and I had to take it three times a day.
Chinese Herbal Medication
Real Chinese medication does not come in bottles. It is handmade on the property according to the doctor’s instructions. It is made to an exact formula that suits the condition of your particular body.
There are a few hundred different herbs and the "pharmacist" mixes them in exactly the right combination.
You are then instructed to put these herbs into boiling water, let them draw for fifteen or twenty minutes, then drink them. Let me assure you that you will never again taste anything as vile as a herbal concoction prescribed by a Chinese doctor.
But they work!
Treating a Giraffe with Acupuncture. No Placebo Effect!
Chinese Medicine vs. Western Medicine
Dr. Chen and I had many conversations. She told me that she was seconded from Beijing University where she was a professor to teach British doctors TCM. She also told me, with a cheeky smile on her face, that AcuMedic never took doctors until they were past forty. “Otherwise they think they know something,” she said.
She also told me that in China, there were two schools of medicine—one Western and one traditional Chinese medicine. Each course was five years long, with students studying both. Those students studying Western medicine spent one year studying traditional Chinese medicine, and those students studying Chinese medicine spent one year studying Western medicine.
That way, the community of doctors referred patients to the discipline most likely to cure or heal them.
Herbs, Acupuncture, and Moxibustion
There are three arms to Chinese medicine. The first is administrating herbs for the treatment of disease. The study of these herbs has evolved for more than two and a half thousand years, thereby probably being the most researched herbs in existence.
While there is now a tendency to mash them into tablets and pills according to the Western tradition, the more powerful way to administer them is to have the exact quantity of herbs mixed for the exact condition of the patient’s body, and then for it to be taken as an infusion.
Acupuncture is the insertion of needles into certain points in the body. It does not hurt. Sometimes you become aware of your entire life force flowing through your body. This does not happen often, but it does happen. When I asked Dr. Chen about this, she replied, "Oh, that means it really needed treatment!"
My first experience of acupuncture predated my introduction to TCM.
I had been painting the ceiling of my kitchen and injured my shoulders, neck, and back. It was so painful that I went to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. For nearly six weeks, I had physiotherapy. It didn’t even remotely remove the pain.
The practitioner then asked me if I would be willing to try something else. I was desperate.
“Acupuncture,” she replied.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I put needles into you. It’s a Chinese treatment.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“No,” she said. Fortunately, I’m the believing kind, and it didn’t hurt.
Suffice to say that I walked out of the hospital without pain and that it never returned. When I went for my follow up appointment, it wasn’t necessary.
Moxibustion, the burning of plants very close to the skin, is sometimes used in combination with acupuncture. Dr. Chen used this once or twice on me. I found it a pleasant experience.
Diagnosis Using the Tongue
A TCM doctor will look at the shape, size, tension, colour, and coating of the tongue. Different areas of the tongue are linked to distinct parts of the body in much the same way that reflexology uses different parts of the food to access different parts of the body.
The tongue will indicate the condition of the blood, organs, and Qi (energy). It will also indicate whether there is an excess or a deficiency of some sort, and whether the body is prone to heat or cold. If there is inflammation in the blood, this can also be determined from the state of the tongue. Whether there is good digestion, bad digestion, various allergic disorders, autoimmune disease, yeast infection, or a biotin deficiency, all can be determined by the practitioner.
Diagnosis Using the Pulse and Other Pillars
Whereas a Western doctor will only measure your pulse to determine the speed of your heart beat, the TCM doctor differentiates between twenty nine different pulses. It is not an easy method and is dependent on information coming in from the other pillars of diagnosis. These include observing the patient, listening to the way the patient talks, and asking the patient for their past medical history and their various symptoms. You can read more about pulse diagnosis here.
What Is Qi?
While some would interpret Qi (chi) as spirit, that is not what is understood in China. It is more akin to a universal life force that inhabits everything, including human beings. This life force links all people to each other as well as to the earth and all its other life forms.
Your First Consultation
An initial consultation with a TCM practitioner is very different to that conducted by a Western doctor.
A Western doctor can take ten minutes to tell you that you have a cold, write out a prescription in minutes, and then you’re out of the office. For this, he will charge a considerable sum of money.
The TCM doctor will give you an initial two-hour slot during which s/he will ask you many questions, plus observe your behaviour, take your pulse, and look at your tongue. S/he will then insert slim needles into you while you are lying down and leave you for a period ranging from thirty minutes to an hour.
When she removes the needles, you will be told to collect your herbal medication at the dispensing counter, plus given instructions on how to make the infusion.
If you are in a country where herbs are not permitted, then you will be given small white tablets (which are not as effective) made in the same way that Western medicine is.
American TCM vs. British TCM
Yes, there is a difference.
I was extremely disappointed with the quality of practice of Chinese medicine in the United States. I discovered that there are laws which do not permit its full practice. Only conditions which are normally associated with the imagination are permitted to be "healed" by TCM. In other words, the powers that be have determined that TCM is based on placebo effects and so only psychosomatic illness (caused by stress or internal conflict) can be treated by it.
In the United Kingdom, there is a sufficient flow of Western medical doctors retraining as TCM doctors to validate that it’s far more than this.
A TCM Herbal Store in Hong Kong
Science and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Neuroscientists who now have more sensitive equipment are seeing changes in the brain as a result of acupuncture. To quote Dr. Richard Harris, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, “I was completely floored. Whatever the acupuncture was doing, it wasn’t working as a placebo.”
Vitaly Napadow, a neuroscientist at Harvard medical school, treated patients with carpal tunnel syndrome with electro-acupuncture and discovered that the results were different than the placebo group. The group which had been treated with acupuncture showed an increase in the speed of nerve transmission.
To date, it has been assumed that acupuncture does not work. However, with the introduction of Western medicine into China at the time of the takeover by the communists, TCM was evaluated, and it was found to have some worth. I would respect that.
In addition, it has been assumed that when the patient says there is a decrease in pain, it has been nothing more than the placebo effect. However, recently, there has been some questions asked about the placebo effect. It appears that there are other reasons for medication working on some and not on others. It has nothing to do with a willingness to believe or disbelieve, and the placebo effect may, in fact, be fake.
My Personal Experience With TCM and Acupuncture
I last saw Dr. Chen in July 2003 shortly before I immigrated to the United States.
I lived in San Diego for many years and was treated several times at the Pacific College of Medicine. The only effective treatment was for a sports injury by a sports doctor who was learning acupuncture. My injury healed within weeks.
When staying in Houston, I once more approached a TCM school and was horrified to find that they were forbidden by law to practice TCM in its entirety.
I returned to London in 2015 and made an appointment at Acumedic. Dr. Chen had retired, but the receptionist remembered me! Another doctor treated me.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2017 Tessa Schlesinger
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on October 25, 2017:
This is quite interesting to me. I have a lot of chronic pain. I think I need a TCM practitioner. You convinced me. :)
Tessa Schlesinger (author) on October 25, 2017:
Threekeys, I started off saying it was more than 3000 years old, then I started researching it, and there were different figures, starting from 2000 years old. I don't know which one it is.
threekeys on October 24, 2017:
I think Acupuncture is over 3,000 years old. I saw a documentary where they opened the skull using acupuncture. The patient was awake, talking and not feeling any pain.
You reminded me Tess. I should revisit a acupuncturist.