Chinese medicine is a complete medical system that has diagnosed, treated, and prevented illness for over twenty-three centuries. While it can remedy ailments and alter states of mind, Chinese medicine can also enhance recuperative power, immunity, and the capacity for pleasure, work, and creativity.
Within Chinese cosmology, all of creation is born from the marriage of two polar principles, Yin and Yang: Earth and Heaven, winter and summer, night and day, cold and hot, wet and dry, inner and outer, body and mind. Harmony of this union means health, good weather, and good fortune, while disharmony leads to disease, disaster, and bad luck. The strategy of Chinese medicine is to restore harmony.
Each human being is seen as a world in miniature, a garden in which doctor and patient together strive to cultivate health. Every person has a unique terrain to be mapped, a resilient yet sensitive ecology to be maintained. Like a gardener uses irrigation and compost to grow robust plants, the doctor uses acupuncture, herbs, and food to recover and sustain health.
Just as Nature contains air, sea, and land, the human body is comprised of Qi (pronounced chee), Moisture, and Blood. Qi is the animating force that gives us our capacity to move, think, feel, and work. Moisture is the liquid medium which protects, nurtures, and lubricates tissue. Blood is the material foundation out of which we create bones, nerves, skin, muscles, and organs.
Human beings intermingle psyche and soma, Spirit (Shen) and Essence (Jing). Shen is the immaterial expression of the individual; and Essence represents the body's reproductive and regenerative substance. Chinese medicine appreciates the impact of the unseen upon the visible. Even though it is impossible to touch or measure thoughts or emotions, they are acknowledged as inextricably linked to physiology.
As Nature is organized by five primal powers - Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water - so the body is divided into five functional systems known as Organ Networks. These Networks govern particular tissues, mental faculties, and physical activities by regulating and preserving Qi, Moisture, Blood, Spirit, and Essence.
For example, the Kidney Network includes yet extends beyond the job of managing fluid metabolism which we in the West ordinarily associate with the kidneys. The Kidney stores the Essence responsible for reproduction, growth, and regeneration. it controls the teeth, bones, marrow, brain, inner ear, pupil of the eye, and lumbar region, and is associated with the emotion of fear, the will, and the capacity for sharp thinking and perception. So problems such as retarded growth, ringing in the ears, infertility, low back pain, paranoia, fuzzy thinking, weak vision, apathy, or despair are viewed as dysfunctions of the Kidney Network.
The Heart not only propels blood through the vessels, but harbors the Spirit and governs the mind. Symptoms as varied as anxiety, restless sleep, angina, and palpitations occur when the Heart is agitated.
The Spleen is in charge of the assimilation of food and fluids, as well as ideas, so when this Network is disturbed, indigestion, bloating, fatigue, scattered thinking, and poor concentration ensue.
The Liver is responsible for the storage of Blood, flow of Qi, and evenness of temperament - so when the Liver is thwarted, tension in the neck and shoulders, high blood pressure, headaches, cramping, moodiness, and impulsive behavior may follow.
Through the breath, the Lung sets the body rhythm, defends its boundaries, and affords inspiration. A troubled Lung might trigger tightness in the chest, skin rashes, vulnerability to colds or flus, rigid thinking, or melancholy.
In Nature, extreme wind, dampness, dryness, heat, and cold wreak havoc in the world. These same forces can derange balance within the human body, weakening or obstructing the movement of Qi in the organs. As winds shake the trees of the forest, disassembling leaves and branches, internal Wind manifests as vertigo, unsteady movement, and trembling. As saturated earth generates swamps, so Dampness becomes phlegm and edema in the body. As aridity withers vegetation, so Dryness causes chapping or cracking of mucus membranes. Just as ice inhibits the rush of water in a winter stream, so internal Cold retards circulation and depresses metabolism. And just as fire scorches the earth, so internal Heat may inflame tissue.
Qi, Moisture, and Blood circulate within a web of pathways called channels that link together all the parts of the organism. Health exists when adequate Qi, Moisture, and Blood flow smoothly. Symptoms as varied as joint pain, headache, anxiety, fatigue, menstrual cramps, high blood pressure, asthma, indigestion, and the common cold occur when their circulation is disrupted.
All illness is understood as a consequence of either a depletion or a congestion of Qi, Moisture, and Blood. Depletion leads to weakness, lethargy, frequent illness, poor digestion, and inadequate blood flow. Congestion results in aches, tension, tenderness, pain, a distended abdomen, irritability, and swelling.
Practitioners assess a person's health by feeling the pulsations at each wrist and by observing the color and form of the face, tongue, and body. This information is interpreted in the context of a patient's present and past complaints, work and living habits, physical environment, family health history, and emotional life.
For example, if Max has red eyes, a yellow coating on his tongue, and a bounding pulse, this indicates Heat and congested Qi. He may be complaining of stomach pain, migraine, nausea, fever, or bronchitis. If Emma has pale lips, brittle hair, a thin pulse, and dry tongue, this suggests deficiency of Blood and Moisture, which undermines the function of the Liver, Heart, and Spleen. Her complaints may be that she feels tense, anxious, and irritable, has been unable to conceive, and has trouble with chronic fatigue, depression, or insomnia. Diagnosis is a way of understanding a problem within the categories of Chinese medicine.
The goal of treatment is to adjust and harmonize Yin and Yang - wet and dry, cold and heat, inner and outer, body and mind. This is achieved by regulating the Qi, Moisture, and Blood in the Organ Networks: weak organs are tonified, congested channels are opened, excess is dispersed, tightness is softened, agitation is calmed, heat is cooled, cold is warmed, dryness is moistened, and dampness is drained.
Treatment may incorporate acupuncture, herbal remedies, moxibustion, cupping, diet, exercise, and massage. Duration of treatment depends on the nature of the complaint, its severity, and how long it has been present. Acupuncture is scheduled as often as three times a week or as little as twice a month. Response varies. Some need only a few sessions while others need sustained care to reverse entrenched patterns established over time. As symptoms improve, fewer visits are required, individual progress being the yardstick.
Because Chinese medicine views people as ecosystems in miniature, it seeks to improve our capacity to balance and renew our resources. Chinese medicine can minimize the erosion of our soil by enriching it, maximize the flow of nutrients by increasing circulation, and help prevent bottlenecks that obstruct movement.
Often Western medicine intervenes only after crises arise, whereas Chinese medicine anticipates problems by sustaining our interior landscape. By correcting depletion and stagnation at earlier stages, greater problems later on are avoided.
Sometimes Western medicine has nothing to offer for nagging chronic complaints that Chinese medicine can help. The two are not a substitute for each other. They are often complementary. Whereas Western medicine may heroically rescue us, Chinese medicine can protect and preserve our health day to day.
The regulation of health care practice differs from state to state. Since 1976 California has licensed qualified acupuncturists as primary care providers through its Board of Medical Quality Assurance. Safe and effective practice standards have been established by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists (NCCA). All practitioners certified by this Commission or the state comply with strict requirements for sterile needles. Many health insurance policies elect to cover acupuncture treatment.
Chinese medicine can effectively treat acute and chronic conditions and provide preventive care. To discover whether Chinese medicine is helpful for you, try it.
© 1991 by H Beinfield & E Korngold. Between Heaven and Earth, A Guide to Chinese Medicine. Ballantine, 1991.
© 1973, 1987 by C Huang. Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain. Celestial Arts, 1987.
© 1980 by Beijing College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, et. al. Essentials of Chinese Acupuncture. Foreign Languages Press, 1980.