Over a quarter of the world’s population turns to Chinese medicine for a significant portion of their healthcare, making it the most vibrant and flourishing of the traditional medical systems still existing today. Indeed, it has proven itself so effective that it has spread far beyond its cultural borders and taken root right around the globe, with Australia, USA and Western Europe embracing its many virtues with particular enthusiasm.
Part of the reason for its increased popularity worldwide is that Chinese medicine and Western medicine are not in competition with each other. The strengths of Western medicine are different from those of Chinese medicine: screening tests such as the pap smear for cervical cancer for instance, provide far earlier detection of insidious pathology brewing than a standard Chinese medicine diagnosis would. The intrinsic worth of Western medicine (WM) lies in its ability to analyse molecular and cellular changes and to design medical intervention which operate on the same level. Similarly, its capacity to respond to medical crisis with emergency medicine is phenomenal and unrivalled.
However, it is this very focus on the minute and microscopic level of disease that prevents it from taking a ‘whole person’ view. To a certain extent, the deficiencies and problems that arise from modern approaches to healthcare are due to the very factors that underlie its strength.
Conversely, Chinese medicine (CM) is fundamentally borne out of the ‘whole person’ perspective. Its medical theory offers an insightful map of the entire human experience. This is held in the mind of the practitioner whilst he or she considers the many inter-related physiological, emotional and psychological factors influencing the patient’s condition, many of which are often overlooked by the modern medical paradigm. However, used intelligently in tandem or in combination and played to their respective strengths, Chinese Medicine and modern Western medicine can form useful allies to enhance healthcare outcomes.
Health is not a fixed state. Life is fundamentally a process of change, constant change. Our biology reflects this and is itself a dynamic process of constant change that continually orchestrates infinitesimal responses to change to achieve a finely-balanced and optimal homeostasis.
By extension, we are not operating in isolation from our environment either but are wholly subject to and influenced by the world in which we live. In health, climactic and seasonal changes will be correspondingly registered and adapted to by our biology, albeit largely unconsciously. However, illness can occur, in part, as a result of a reduced ability to adapt successfully to the seasons, rhythms and cycles of natural order.
While management of an acute or threatening condition with pharmaceutical or surgical intervention can be crucial, it is equally crucial to help the body restore its own capacity to respond optimally and effectively to the process of change that lies at the heart of health, disease and indeed life itself. At times, this can involve a patient taking medication to stabilise the acute nature of certain symptoms as a short term measure, while acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) undertake the longer term task of restoring the body’s natural capacity to function healthily of its own accord.
Preventative and Curative Treatment:
Equally a preventative strategy can be employed, taking pre-emptive action to rectify a patient’s tendency towards certain pathologies ahead of them becoming severe enough to warrant pharmaceutical or surgical intervention. With its whole person perspective, Chinese medicine can map and predict the likely progression of a person’s pathology even when their diverse range of symptoms seem entirely unconnected.
For instance, there is little point in taking frequent courses of antibiotics every winter for recurrent chest or throat infections without simultaneously attending to the factors that predispose a person to developing them. While WM can effectively relieve an acute infection with antibiotics, CM can correct the deficiencies that underlie such conditions. Equally, preventative action can be taken several months ahead of autumn and winter with CM to fortify immunity and the physiological dynamics implicated.
Meanwhile, it would not surprise a CM practitioner if a patient, after a winter or two of recurrent infections and antibiotics, presented as having now developed chronic fatigue syndrome or hypothyroid with painful joints, poor appetite, bloating, candida, loose bowel movements and depression, or lower back and knee pain with urinary tract weakness and a feeling of being constantly cold and uncharacteristically overwhelmed. These would be logical pathological progressions within the CM medical perspective and treatment relatively straight-forward.
The Art of Being Patient:
However, as much as there is an art to being a skilled healthcare practitioner, equally there is an art to being a patient. With the modern pace of life and our growing expectation for instant gratification, the art of being patient can be overlooked and underestimated as a vital aspect of the treatment process. While pharmaceutical interventions can offer welcome short cuts to symptom management, for those wishing to restore true health, a more profound engagement with their treatment will be necessary and very likely, more rewarding.