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Traditional Chinese Medicine History, Then and Now

An Oriental Medicine orientation.
By Don Matesz
March/April 2005
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It may come as a surprise, but Cher, U.S. Tour de France cyclist George Hincapie and U.S. Olympic high jumper Amy Acuff do have at least one thing in common: They all use Oriental Medicine (OM), a 3,000-year-old health-care system that originated in China. Also known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (see “Explaining the Terms” on Page 39), this system uses herbal medicine, acupuncture, nutritional therapy and therapeutic massage.

Nearing her 60th birthday, Cher gets regular acupuncture treatments to help maintain her youthful beauty. Hincapie, a seven-time Tour de France competitor who played a pivotal role in Lance Armstrong’s six triumphs, turned to OM after conventional medicine failed to help him overcome several career-threatening illnesses. The OM treatments returned him to optimum health and performance, and he now uses OM as his primary health-care modality.

In a recent interview with USA Today, Acuff credits acupuncture treatments for keeping her free of major injuries during the four years she trained for the 2004 Athens Olympics. She plans to practice OM and will graduate from an Oriental medical college this spring.

Although new to many Americans, OM has an ancient legacy of leading the world in scientific discoveries, and many international studies indicate Oriental medical therapies can improve health and quality of life.

First to Come, First to Serve

What we now call “Oriental Medicine” originated in China. In his encyclopedic multivolume Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge University Press, 1956-1961), the eminent sinologist Joseph Needham reported that Chinese physicians began recording medical knowledge on tortoise shells and cattle bones between 1700 and 1027 B.C. By 200 B.C., Chinese physicians had medical knowledge unmatched by Western physicians until centuries later.

Chinese physicians correctly understood blood circulation and heart function by 200 B.C., about 1,800 years before Western physicians. By this time, Chinese scientists also were explaining some physiological phenomena as manifestations of a vital force called qi (pronounced chee) that circulates throughout the body and can be manipulated by massage and acupuncture to ameliorate disease.

Also by 200 B.C., Chinese physicians had learned to isolate sex hormones by distillation of urine, laying the foundation for the science of endocrinology. Europeans did not record similar knowledge of hormones until 1927.

By A.D. 300 Chinese physicians knew of beriberi and other diseases that arose from dietary imbalances, and they were successfully treating those diseases with appropriate dietary modifications. Europeans did not have equivalent knowledge until the late 19th century.

By A.D. 600, a thousand years before their European counterparts, Chinese physicians knew diabetics’ urine contains sugar, and they understood proper diagnosis and dietary treatment of diabetes.

By A.D. 643, Chinese physicians understood that goiters may be caused by hypothyroidism and treated with extracts of animal thyroid tissue. Europeans did not understand the link between the thyroid gland and goiter until 1890.

By A.D. 1000, Chinese physicians knew of microbes and the basics of immunology, and they used inoculation to induce immunity to infectious diseases. By 1741, they knew how to prepare attenuated smallpox inoculations. Some historians believe this knowledge was later transmitted to Europe by Silk Road trade.

That China should develop sophisticated healing techniques long before the Western world isn’t really surprising, considering its development in many other arenas. For example, Chinese scientists were the first to discover or invent decimal mathematics, trigonometry, cybernetic machines, cast iron, steel, natural gas, clocks, suspension bridges, paper, winnowing mills, seismographs, the hexagonal structure of snow and many other technologies long before Europeans.

Chinese medical concepts and practices reached Europe by the 16th century, and European interest in Chinese medical practices grew from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, after which interest waned until the mid-20th century. Today, Europeans lead the United States in the use of Chinese medicine.

Coming to the United States

Chinese immigrants first brought OM to the United States in the 19th century, but until the 1970s Americans had little awareness of it. But word gets out when something works and awareness has grown to the degree that 42 states and the District of Columbia now have passed OM practice laws recognizing that Americans have the right to practice and utilize OM for health care. According to the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance, there are now more than 15,000 licensed, registered or certified acupuncturists and some 9,000 students enrolled in more than 40 Oriental medical schools in the United States.

Techniques and Training

Throughout history, Chinese physicians have used acupuncture, tuina (therapeutic massage), nutrition and herbal medicine to maintain and restore health.

Acupuncture involves gentle insertion of ultrafine needles into specific points along channels of qi (vital energy) flow in the body. The treatment adjusts the activity and distribution of qi and blood, to restore balance to body and mind.

Historically, the Chinese people have preferred tuina, nutrition and herbal medicine over acupuncture. Tuina, the progenitor of acupressure, involves the use of the fingers, hands or elbows to stimulate the same points used in acupuncture, to promote circulation, relax muscular tension and regulate vital functions.

Oriental herbal medicines usually contain multiple herbs combined in formulas that OM physicians have used effectively for hundreds of years to treat well-defined patterns of disharmony. The herbs might be prepared as a tea, pills or as an external application. Sometimes the treatment will involve cooking the herbs with foods that address the imbalance.

For some types of disharmony, some OM practitioners might want to include animal products from nonendangered species, such as deer horn velvet or gecko lizard, in a compound or tea. If you want to avoid these, simply inform your practitioner and he or she can use alternatives that don’t involve animal products.

Chinese physicians also have utilized meditation and qi gong, a therapeutic exercise often including deep breathing and visualization, for reducing mental stress that may promote physical disease.

Most American OM practitioners have received their training from U.S. colleges of OM. These colleges must meet the standards of the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Acupuncture-only training programs require three years of master’s-level training; OM programs, including herbalism, require four years of training. Following this training, a prospective practitioner must pass national board exams to obtain certification and a license to practice. A fully licensed acupuncture or OM practitioner has completed between 1,825 and 3,000 hours of classroom instruction and supervised clinical internship.

Most states allow medical doctors to practice acupuncture or herbal medicine without having this full course of training. Only a few states require medical doctors or chiropractors to have 100 to 300 hours acupuncture training before incorporating it into their practices. Without full training, these medical acupuncturists do not meet the standards set for Oriental medical practice.

What Can OM Treat?

According to the World Health Organization, acupuncture offers effective treatment for more than 43 common conditions, including allergies, headache, colds and flu, gynecological disorders, asthma, sciatica, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, stress, constipation, depression, heart problems, infertility, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome and sports injuries.

Clinical studies indicate acupuncture effectively treats headaches, painful menstrual periods, fibromyalgia, stroke, substance abuse, menopause, depression, female infertility, breach baby, neck pain, lumbar pain, osteoarthritis, morning sickness, respiratory disease and urinary dysfunction. The 1997 National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference on Acupuncture stated, “The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies.”

Clinical research in China, Europe and the United States indicates that Chinese herbal medicines may effectively treat a similarly wide variety of conditions.

Safety First

The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies.

In the United States, an individual has to receive extensive training in Clean Needle Technique (CNT) to obtain full certification from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) and independent state licensure. Consequently, treatment rendered by individuals with NCCAOM certification has an extraordinary safety record.

Although acupuncture may occasionally cause mild pain or superficial bruising, according to the National Acupuncture Foundation, between 1965 and 2001, medical journals reported only nine incidents of internal injury and seven cases of infections from acupuncture in the United States. Eight of those internal injuries were performed by individuals lacking NCCAOM certification or licensure, including medical doctors, and one was a self-inflicted injury by an untrained individual. All seven infections were performed by individuals who did not meet NCCAOM or CNT standards.

For comparison, according to Barbara Starfield, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, allopathic medical treatments rendered by licensed personnel cause more than 200,000 deaths annually. According to a 2000 Journal of the American Medical Association article, these deaths are due to non-error adverse drug effects, medication errors, other errors, unnecessary surgeries, and hospital-acquired infections.

What is more, acupuncture has beneficial side effects. In a study of six clinics in five states, 76 percent of patients reported feeling better, 71 percent missed fewer work days, 69 percent got along better with others, 64 percent had less pain, 58 percent had more energy, 58 percent were more focused and 64 percent could work better.

When properly prescribed in traditional formulas tailored to an individual according to OM principles, herbs can improve health with minimal or no side effects. Many Americans already use herbs commonly found in “Chinese” formulas, such as ginger, licorice, peppermint, cinnamon and cardamom. Some other items commonly used in Oriental formulas include foods such as longan and lycium fruit, Cornelian cherries, dates and dried yams.

The recent ephedra (ma huang) controversy has given some consumers the impression that Chinese herbs are dangerous. However, all ephedra-related deaths occurred among people using the herb improperly, without the guidance of a trained herbalist. Moreover, despite improper use of ephedra, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) links only 100 deaths to the herb. In comparison, according to James Fries, M.D., of the Stanford University School of Medicine, about 76,000 Americans are hospitalized and 7,600 die each year from gastrointestinal bleeding caused by aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Fully trained herbalists can no longer use ephedra to treat respiratory problems because the FDA took it off the market, but NSAIDs remain available without a prescription.

Chinese dietitians were prescribing a diet rich in a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, with modest portions of lean animal products and fat for millennia before Western nutritionists. Oriental nutrition therapy utilizes whole foods to support health with no adverse effects. After performing an evaluation, an OM practitioner prescribes dietary adjustments that will replenish vital reserves or restore balance. This might include adding or subtracting foods, changing cooking methods or preparing special dishes that might include medicinal herbs.

A growing number of medical doctors appreciate the benefits of OM. A 1996 Kaiser study found that 57.2 percent of primary care physicians in Northern California had used or recommended acupuncture within 12 months preceding the study. A 1996 study by Medalia Health Care found that 44 percent of physicians in the Puget Sound area had referred their patients to acupuncturists.


Don Matesz, a certified herbalist and nutritionist, is a student at the Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture, and coauthor of The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (see Bookshelf, Page 58).


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