Just the other day, my mother sent me an advertorial, written by a naturopath, extolling the virtues of a special herb found in the Chinese medical pharmacopeia. This herb was so effective at treating a certain condition, he wrote, that he was “surprised” that Chinese medicine wasn’t already using it for the condition he had identified.
Friends, please know that Chinese medicine is over 3,000 years old, with a long and storied history — a history replete with schools of research and thought, textbooks, and treatises informed by a vast body of knowledge about the human body, the Chinese pharmacopeia, and the interaction thereof. Granted, it is not based on or expressed in modern medical terms, or even in a lexicon that a westerner can easily understand, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t know what it’s talking about.
I remember times at school when my initial, utter confusion at the seemingly nonsensical descriptions of body function and disease as understood in Chinese medicine would suddenly resolve into utter fascination and amazement as it all began to make sense. I was blown away by the wisdom and practicality of the approach, as well as by the deep understanding of the human body and disease that was evidenced in the writings of the ancient Chinese medical practitioners.
The naturopath who was hawking his “discovery,” this wonder herb, may not have understood why Chinese medicine did not use the herb the way he thought it should be used. Rest assured, Chinese medicine did and does. Ancient wisdom stands the test of time, and is a wisdom worth understanding.
With this in mind, let us turn our attention to a common malady that Chinese medicine has been treating for thousands of years: osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the degeneration of cartilage found in a joint. When the cartilage degenerates, bone ends touch and from the friction of bone against bone, the condition worsens and pain is a common result.
How does Chinese medicine see osteoarthritis? This is the part where you will have to hold on to your hats. In Chinese medicine, a functional weakness is allowing a pathogen called bi-syndrome to enter the joint’s space. There are actually four types of bi-syndromes: wind, cold, damp, and heat. Each has its own symptom, but they can easily combine and produce multiple symptoms.
The first step in a Chinese medical diagnosis is to figure which bi-syndromes are involved and then to formulate a treatment plan. Chinese medicine never delivers a one-treatment-fits-all approach. Determinants such as lifestyle, the environment in which the person lives (indoors and outdoors), a person’s job, and other factors must be taken into account before a treatment plan can be formulated.
I once treated a patient for osteoarthritis of the thumb joint. It was debilitating and prevented her from using her thumb. This was particularly frustrating to her because she was a classical pianist and could no longer play piano. With dogged determination on both of our parts, we started treatment. With each treatment, which included acupuncture as well as Chinese herbs, she started to feel better. It took some time, but she eventually regained the use of her thumb and resumed playing the piano!
When my mother sent me the note about the Chinese herb, the misunderstanding arose from a lack of knowledge. Chinese herbs are rarely used singly and almost always used in combinations called formulae. This allows for synergy of the herbs to benefit the patient, and creates a balance of the properties of each herb. It is akin to a recipe, in which the proper combination of ingredients and seasoning bring out the harmonious taste of the dish.
This is what makes Chinese medicine so very interesting, and has for thousands of years!
By Simeon Pollack
Simeon Pollock, L.Ac., L.M.T. is Maryland-licensed in both acupuncture and massage. He has a private practice in Silver Spring. Simeon practices his unique style of holistic healthcare by blending acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and massage therapy into a wonderful healing experience.