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An Encounter With Oriental Medicine

JeffJeff Wonoprabowo -- A couple weeks ago I made a trip to see the chiropractor with four classmates as part of a requirement to observe complementary medicine in action. This week the same group of us went back to the same facility, but this time to see some acupuncture in action.

Well, it turned out we had more in store for us than just acupuncture. They split us into smaller groups (2-3 students) and we rotated through the clinic spending 1 hour observing different doctors (with OMD degrees) and interns (students about to graduate).

My group consisted of another classmate and myself. We began our first hour in the "pharmacy." Now, I type pharmacy in quotes because it is not the pharmacy most people in the United States are accustomed with. The pharmacy had a large wooden cabinet with lots of drawers, and each drawer was filled with, maybe, three or four different herbs/roots. One of the things they had was ginseng. The ginseng looked like small instrument reeds (for clarinet or saxophone), and I sucked on one while my classmate chewed hers. While my mom has taken ginseng before in a tea form, I never tried it. It must be an acquired taste and after I spit it out, I excused myself as I went to get some water.

After I had my drink of water, I had my pulses read. Apparently, a lot can be discerned by reading the radial pulses. The intern noted that I had a quick pulse and she checked my tongue; she told me it was very red. Those two meant that I had a lot of "heat inside" and that I probably am easily irritated. She didn't tell me anything about the state of my heart, lungs, kidneys, or spleen (all these organs are supposed to be represented in the radial pulses).

The rest of the day was spent with various OMDs. I saw acupuncture, cupping (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_cupping), scraping, and heard about acutorture. I know that acupuncture has been studied and there has been evidence that it can be helpful in pain management. But aside from acupuncture, I don't know of any researching into the techniques I saw. Moreover, I didn't really understand what they were treating when they used the techniques.

I got the idea that cupping and scraping were used for muscle pain. But I would venture a guess and say that they use it for more than just that. It looked like it might feel nice, though. I might have to go find a cupping set and try it.

The acutorture was something that I really did not understand. The doctor I saw who does this stepped out and instructed the intern to explain to us what acutorture was. The intern, though, seemed really nervous and flustered. He couldn't explain it at first, but finally managed to say that it was like physical therapy. I'm not sure how accurate that statement is. I heard (from classmates who saw it done) that it is quite painful.

A lot of what I saw was foreign to me even though my ethnic background is Chinese. They say the results of these techniques speak for themselves as their patients are satisfied with the results. But the explanations they give about meridians and channels seem off-putting for many people who train in western medicine. Personally I found the visit fascinating -- almost a cultural experience. My curiosity has been piqued. But whether I go back as a patient or not... well, I don't know yet.

Has anyone had any experience with Traditional Chinese Medicine? I'd love to hear about it, good or bad.

October 17, 2008 in Jeff Wonoprabowo | Permalink


My (brief) experience with acupuncture has been incredibly eye opening.

I was living with an acupuncture student for a while and I agreed to let him practice on me once when I was feeling incredibly anxious and stressed. I've never had such a quick return to calm, nearly to euphoria, with anything else.

He needled the "four gates." The fleshy portion between thumb and index fingers on the dorsum of the hands and a corresponding place on the feet. He explained later that my Qi was mostly swimming in my head, causing anxiety and stress, and the "four gates" allowed it to get out.

The stuff is powerful.

Also, I let one of his classmates practice on me and had some serious abdominal pain that I got worked up at the doctor's office. The difference with his classmates' treatment was that he was merely "finding points" and wasn't specifically providing any treatment that was indicated for me.

I found acupuncture works, but the belief that side effects can't occur is naive. I encourage you to challenge yourself and try a treatment!


Posted by: michael stanclift | Oct 19, 2008 7:51:13 PM

Jeff ~ If you think cupping and acupuncture are "odd," try to witness "Healing Touch." I'm an RN and have used it on military guys at the Naval Hospital in San Diego. No morphine was needed ! Oh no, don't tell the pharmaceutical companies !

Posted by: Nancy Chardt | Oct 21, 2008 1:35:11 PM

I am an acupuncturist. I found your term "acutorture" to be interesting as I have never heard of it before nor have i seen anything like it (and I have extensive training). apparantly this is something this particular practitioner has invented. I don't think i would even try something labeled as acu"torture". it is also a shame that things were not properly explained to you. it is sad that the students who were supposed to be graduating could not properly explain their field. what school was this? at my alma matter we are extensively trained in both eastern as well as western medicine. if anyone has any questions regarding acupuncture - please feel free to contact me, I will be happy to explain in laymans terms.

Posted by: Karen | Oct 21, 2008 2:08:42 PM

I would recommend this place if you are ever in the Seattle area:


I am currently a patient there but would like to attend the School one day...they have done wonderful things for my lumbago that allopathic medicine couldn't do anything about besides throw narcotics at.

I suspect that "meridians" are points in our nerves/nervous system that provides feedback to the brain in an as-of-yet undiscovered mechanism; I think that this feedback helps recapture individuals' lost homeostasis in increments. Yes you ~can~ have negative effects from mucking about the nervous system...ask anyone who's had an episode of serotonin syndrome.

I would give it a good look as the intuitive version versus analytical version of neurophysiology.

Try it, let them know you are nervous and to be gentle at first. You just might like it!

Posted by: Janece | Oct 21, 2008 6:15:39 PM

As an acupuncturist I have to explain to people daily what I do and what I am treating. One of the reasons it's difficult is because the Chinese medical system utilizes a completely different paradigm for the body and its mechanisms. Even though acupuncturists might not be able to express it in words that make sense to a western oriented patient or physician, they DO know what they're treating. When I tell a colleague that I am treating someone for [ex.] Blood Deficiency caused by Yin Deficiency, they know what I am doing with that patient, just as if a Western physician told another trained individual that they were treating an elderly woman with orthostatic hypertension (or whatever). But if I tell the patient that, or - heavens - try to explain my diagnosis and treatment strategy to her primary care physician, I am just speaking in gobbledy-gook, and I know that. So I've developed ways of explaining the language of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)in a way that will be comprehensible, and I'm not sure a student would have developed their own way of doing that yet. One of the things I explain is that TCM can be looked at as if it were one of those self-enclosed ecological spheres - you have to keep it self-contained. When you develop a diagnosis and treat according to TCM principle, you DO get good results; i.e., staying within the paradigm it works very well. (FTR, I am a huge believer in integrated medicine - both allopathic and CAM, but each system has to be allowed to work within their own paradigm simultaneously.) As with any medicine however, the ability to draw a correct diagnosis from the clinical presentation is paramount to identifying the correct treatment. That takes "practice," just as it does for Western doctors.

Posted by: Anaya | Oct 21, 2008 8:06:38 PM

Thank you very much for writing this article. As a practicing OMD, it is very enlightening to read something written from your perspective. There are indeed many misunderstandings about our profession, and likewise many concepts that are foreign to practitioners of modern medicine. It is excellent that you are open minded enough to even look into complimentary and alternative medicines, but especially one that you are connected to in heritage.
I am in the same boat as one of the previous posters in that I have never heard of "acutorture" before. From what I can tell by your article, I think you are talking about a scraping technique called Gua Sha. And you are absolutely correct in assuming that the applications of cupping and gua sha go beyond just the treatment of muscle pain.
I think your choice of the word "cultural" was wonderful. This is a medical system that has been around for a very long time (several thousands of years). Necessarily the traditional Chinese view of life saturates every aspect of it, the same way that modern western scientific thought permeates the practice of modern western medicine. There are of course many parallels and divergences between the two, but ultimately both work toward the same end- to benefit the patient. With that common goal the two forms of medicine can and do work very harmoniously together, each picking up where the other may fall short.
Thank you again for posting your article.

Posted by: jim | Oct 21, 2008 8:54:17 PM

Why is “open-mindedness” held in such esteem when the evidence is unreliable/weak/nonexistent? I have a guess, and it doesn’t involve the word paradigm.

Deciding whether to provide a given treatment should be based on the best available evidence, not the eloquence of its proponents. Following well-spoken practitioners could easily result in harms to patients, whichever self-enclosed ecological sphere you happen to find yourself in.

In response, please show me your evidence, not your indignation.

Posted by: Alex | Oct 22, 2008 9:02:17 AM

I've never tried any oriental medicine at all, but I've seen alot of my friends used it. A few years back, I remember one of my friends carrying a whole bag of herbs around explaining what each one does and how it should be taken (sucked on, boiled, chewed etc etc). Even though I think that some areas of oriental medicine is still doubtful, I think if it is integrated properly with modern medicine it might do us (mankind) some help. My mom tried acupuncture once, but without much success. From what I know, acupuncture is supposed to release the tension from the "trigger points" in muscles, which is the reason behind on the pain. I hear this is VERY VERY painful and will only temporarily alleviate the pain (the pain recurs after the trigger point formed again). Nonetheless, I think it's very a very interesting branch to know about.

Posted by: workaholic888 | Oct 22, 2008 12:20:47 PM

Responding to the comment on "open mindedness", while I agree that the best available evidence is valuable in making decisions about treatment, another foundation of the scientific method is to question paradigms and be open to the potential of new or unexplained data.

Double blind trials have produced some early evidence of significant effects from acupuncture in certain conditions.

Posted by: Christy | Oct 22, 2008 2:32:39 PM

Just something to think about. Evidence based medicine has only been around for a couple of decades? And the scientific method is only a couple hundred years older than that. Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years. So although it does not conform to our 'new' methods of thinking, can we really say that its own methods of testing and diagnosing are without merit.
There are some researchers who argue that without knowing the mechanism by which acupuncture works, appropriate sham trials cannot be designed. There is one study I know of which looked at acu vs. sham acu for knee pain. The 'real' acu was given with a series of points around the knee. The sham acu used 'unrelated' points - one of which was a point on the abdomen 1 cm from a point used to treat knee pain. And both groups showed improvement. Hmmm. Some of the current research:
I must admit I have a personal bias. After a 20 year history of chronic headaches and migraines, visits to the neurologist, endocrinologist, MRIs, different prescriptions... nothing helped. I went to acupuncture and took herbs for about a year, and now instead of daily headaches, I have zero!

Posted by: sunflwrgrl | Oct 23, 2008 8:51:30 AM

"apparently, a lot can be discerned by reading the radial pulses. The intern noted that I had a quick pulse and she checked my tongue; she told me it was very red. Those two meant that I had a lot of "heat inside" and that I probably am easily irritated"

Hahahaha! That made my day.

Posted by: brian | Oct 23, 2008 4:51:18 PM

There will always be people who will look down at asian medicine as inferior to western medicine. The people who look down at it the most are Big Pharma companies because it hurts their profits.

As a MD, you are taught life saving skills, not how to treat muscle soreness (after working out) and other chronic illnesses like joint pain and monthly pms.

Posted by: vin | Oct 23, 2008 10:25:13 PM

Hey Jeff,

I am currently learning both "conventional" and "traditional chinese" approaches to healing. Personally, I don't like the use of the terms "oriental treatment" and "western treatment" because it confuses the discussion as one of "x community" versus "y community" instead of simply about which approach has better thereapeutic effects for the patient. Also acupuncture is -not- the only TCM discipline, despite its popularity.

My view is,

The "traditional" approach simplifies an illness too much. For example, the use of general but intuitively seemingly easy-to-understand concepts like "hot" and "cold". Often this gives rise to the impression that TCM is "childish" and "unscientific" and also makes it more prone to be abused by poorly trained practitioners. Fever is generally associated with high temperature ("hot") but TCM categorizes the possible root causes as "heatiness", "coldness" etc. How can a person be "hot" and yet "cold" at the same time? Note that I'm using the terms in quotes because I'm attempting a possible "translation". They do not reflect the original intended meaning in chinese.

As for the "conventional" approach, my experience with it is that sometimes it complicates an illness too much that the physician gets confused and inadvertantly delays the treatment. For example, myocardial amlydosis. Depending on your exposure or familiarity with this condition, sometimes you may endup sending a patient through many cycles of false postive tests before you reach a conclusive diagnosis. That's assuming the patient outlives the rate which deposits are forming in the myocardium.

In some cases like chronic pain management, TCM is more superior, in some cases it pales in comparison to conventional methods, such as kidney failures requiring dialysis.

In short, an integrated approach would be most ideal (incidentally, this is the current trend in China). Ultimately, we should always strive for the best, most affordable treatment for our patients and at the same time "do no harm".

Posted by: ihlunn | Oct 24, 2008 2:29:57 AM

Acutoture a term I have heard of. I would have to say that this is a nickname that patients have given this particular practioner. Gua Sha & Tuina (Chinese remedial massage) the techniques that are used. As these techniques are applied they can be very painful especially when trigger points or knots are found they will be dealt with until release. This in turn can be very painful which may seem as if being tortured as one may say. Yes this term is made up not a real technique just a nickname. Like when a personal trainer may say welcome to my "House of Pain" meaning that this workout will be a tough one.

Posted by: Jman | Oct 24, 2008 8:58:13 PM

Current acupuncture research suggests a convergence of the neurophysiology model, the connective tissue model and the growth control model. The growth control model of acupuncture set the first example of a biological model in integrative medicine with significant prediction power across multiple disciplines. It is the first theory in basic acupuncture research which has met the gold standard in testing scientific theory. The following predictions of the growth control model have been independently confirmed by research results in both acupuncture and conventional biomedical sciences: 1. Acupuncture has extensive growth control effects. 2. Singular point and separatrix have important roles in morphogenesis. 3. Organizers have high electric conductance, high current density and high density of gap junctions. 4. A high density of gap junctions is distributed as separatrices or boundaries at body surface after early embryogenesis. 5. Many acupuncture points are located at transition points or boundaries between different body domains or muscles, coinciding with the connective tissue planes. 6. Some morphogens and organizers continue to function after embryogenesis. The growth control model has also shed light on several puzzling phenomena of acupuncture such as the distribution of auricular acupuncture points, the long term effects of acupuncture and the effect of multimodal nonspecific stimulation at acupuncture points.

Source: Acupuncture.com
There is plenty of information regarding the history and current effective use of acupuncture. In fact many "Western" doctors are referring patients who refuse to continue taking "Western" drugs

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