How Does Chinese Medicine Work? What to Expect on the Pathway to Better Health

As we discussed last month, there are three phases of the treatment process. This month we look at the progression that patients take along the path back to health.

Human physiology – all physiology for that matter --follows the principle of Yin and Yang.

In Chinese medicine we have different models to describe what is happening in the body. Just like in nature we all know if it is winter or summer. We also know if we are having a “normal” winter, or like this year, if we are experiencing weather that is unusual. From a certain point of view, when a person has a health problem is it a very similar phenomenon in that the body is not able to create the right physiological condition (or internal weather pattern, if you will) in the body at the right time. Think about menopausal hot flashes, for instance, one of the many conditions that we see frequently with so many women. Now assume the Chinese Medicine model where in each 24 hour period the nighttime is similar to the winter in nature and the daytime is similar to summer. We are supposed to be warmer in the day and cooler at night. Many cases of hot flashes are simply a matter of helping the body do what it naturally wants to do at night, which is return the warmth and nutrients deep inside. If the body can’t do this with the normal mechanisms available to it, then it will do the next best thing and vent its heat outward, which we recognize as a hot flash. 

One of the most interesting parts of practicing this medicine is learning to recognize where in the cycle a patient’s imbalance is and treating effectively. It’s a little like playing a game of chess, but we have to start in the middle of the game with whatever chess pieces are still on the board. Once we identify where in the chess game the patient is, we then can determine in what direction the condition is likely to progress once have begun treating and resolving the symptoms and imbalance. 

Depending on the imbalances in the body, we expect to see different pathways or progressions toward health. In Chinese medicine, there are 3 yang phases or “conformations” and 3 yin phases in the progression. Typically, more acute illnesses appear as yang disease attacking the surface of the body (via the nose, mouth, eyes, ears or wind gates). These include the common cold, flu, chills/fever, body aches, sore throat, stomach bugs, dizziness, etc.. If the person’s constitution is weak, the illness lingers, or if the pathogen is not treated properly (as is sometimes the case with the over use of antibiotics), the illness can become more chronic which means it has moved deeper into the body and has gone into a yin phase. The deeper the illness has moved into the body, the longer it takes to push it back out. 

In our diagram, notice that half of the “conformations” or aspects of our body are Yin (Taiyin, Jueyin and Shaoyin) and other half are Yang (Taiyang, Shaoyang, Yangming). With most chronic conditions, an aspect of treatment will involve treating or resolving both patterns. Let’s take our Hot Flash pattern to illustrate. We will give you the conformation names in Chinese Medicine, but it’s really not important you remember or focus on the Chinese medicine names. 

As we age, the blood aspect of Jue Yin gets weaker, which plays a particularly important role in women’s physiology. A primary function of blood is the ability to hold and distribute heat throughout the body. If the blood is weak, then the heat will become dislodged and float outside the blood. In a hot flash situation, this dislodged heat would then float or flair into the Shao Yang conformation, which includes the areas of the lymph and interstitial spaces of the body. Once this heat flares you will have a full-blown hot flash episode. Notice here that we have involvement of both Yin and Yang. Which do we treat first? Second? Does it matter? A fully trained acupuncturist will know how to determine which aspect to address first, and when it will be effective to address other aspects. By doing this we are able to achieve lasting results. 

For the patient, the treatment process can often feel like flying. The practitioner is the pilot and we know how to fly the plane, but there is no way to predict exactly how each flight will go. In fact, we take great pride in the clinic to make each patient's experience in the clinic as if they are riding first class. However, some flights are more bumpy than others and some parts of each flight might have some turbulence. During the healing process, a similar bumpiness can occur when we are treating the Yang Conformations as the patient is likely to have symptoms during this time. As we treat to resolve illness, it will progress back out the way it came in and old symptoms can return briefly as the illness resolves. While sometimes uncomfortable, this can mean your body is getting stronger and is fighting off the illness. In our Hot Flash case from above, once the Jue Yin blood and Shao Yang patterns have effectively been harmonized and strengthened, we may see symptoms of a seemingly unrelated, albeit more mild pattern, which the acupuncturist will then be able to treat to resolution.

In summary, don't be surprised if you run into a bump, a twist or turn on the pathway to health. As your body becomes stronger and more resilient, it will able to withstand pathogens in the environment. Chinese Medicine, when practiced by a fully trained practitioner, is actually by far the safest method of medicine we know of.

Posted in Acupuncture