Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Alternative Meds/Traditional Chinese Medicine

According to legend, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was invented 4,500 years ago by Huangdi, known as the Yellow Emperor, in collaboration with his physician.

To better understand this type of medicine, which is increasingly popular with Westerners, I visited China a decade ago.

On my trip, a TCM practitioner took me on a tour of one of the country's hospitals. In contrast to the smell of disinfectant encountered in American hospitals, wonderful aromas greet you when you enter a TCM hospital. Similarly, while the pharmacy occupies a small part of the first floor of many hospitals in the U.S., the pharmacy is the first floor of a TCM hospital. Shelf after shelf in the pharmacy hold the ingredients of Traditional Chinese remedies: herbs, animal parts, and chemicals.

Ingredients New to Westerners

Seahorses are considered a key ingredient in treatments for a number of conditions, ranging from impotence to heart disease. Rhinoceroses have been hunted to near extinction in order to acquire their prized horns, which are then ground into a powder, and used for a variety of ailments. Shark fins cooked in soup are thought to cure cancers. Tiger bones were used to treat arthritis until tigers were on the verge of extinction, so the Chinese government banned their use in 1993. Popular herbal ingredients include gingko biloba and ginseng.

During my tour of the hospital, I entered a patient's room and watched a Chinese practitioner as he sat on the bed next to the patient and administered a concoction of TCM ingredients. While Western medicine often treats patients with a single pill for a specific ailment, Traditional Chinese treatments consist of a tea with 10 to 20 separate ingredients.

I was very impressed by the “hands on” approach and the obvious caring relationship between the patient and the physician. But I was very surprised to see an intravenous pole at the other end of the bed with the modern antibiotic Amoxicillin being infused into the patient. I asked the doctor about this apparent incongruity.

“Here in China, we use the best of the West and the best of the East,” he said. I learned that treatments for serious medical conditions like cancer and heart disease are very similar to those used in the United States. However, for day to day preventive care, the Chinese take a different approach.

Examining Chi, Yin, and Yang

When a TCM practitioner is examining a patient, he will look at the hands, tongue, eyes, and skin of a person. In this way, he is looking at the patient's chi, or vital force. Chinese doctors are concerned about the flow of chi, and look for signs that it may be interrupted.

They also examine the balance of opposing forces in the body, the yin and yang. Yin is thought to be wet, slow, soft, and tranquil, and often described as a feminine force. By contrast, yang is hot, hard, dry, and aggressive, traditionally masculine attributes. In examining the balance of these forces, Chinese doctors may conclude that the patient's chi is not flowing properly. Over four millennia, they have come up with many ways to correct such imbalances.

Acupuncture and Acupressure

One TCM treatment is acupuncture. The Chinese believe that chi flows along meridians in the body, and that placement of acupuncture needles at specific points along these meridians can help restore the flow of chi, bringing yin and yang into proper balance. A few years ago, the National Institutes of health convened a consensus conference on acupuncture. It found support among American physicians for using acupuncture to treat specific conditions such as headaches and arthritic pain. Today, the practice is used with varying degrees of success. Fortunately, there is very little risk from having acupuncture as long as the needles are sterilized or disposable.

In addition to acupuncture, a TCM practitioner can use acupressure, which is pressure placed at specific points along the same meridians that are used in acupuncture. Other treatments include cupping, where a heated cup is placed over the skin; moxibustions, the burning of herbs close to acupuncture meridians; massage; and qigong, a combination of breathing and meditation exercises.

So, do I recommend that you try Traditional Chinese Medicine? For serious medical conditions, I would seek a physician trained in the latest Western medical practices. I believe that the main danger of seeking out TCM is that a patient might postpone receiving proven modern treatments for treatable conditions. But for those who want to see how their chi is doing, or whether their yin and yang are in balance, there is very little danger in trying Traditional Chinese Medicine.

 Edward L. SchneiderDr. Edward L. Schneider headed the largest private center for research and education on aging, the Andrus Gerontology Center of the University of Southern California from 1986 to 2004. He is now Dean Emeritus of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and Professor of Medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine. Dr. Schneider has written or co-written 14 books, including Ageless: Take Control of Your Age & Stay Youthful for Life, and published more than 180 scientific articles on topics related to aging.

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