Traditional Chinese Medicine: When to Consider It

June 7, 2014

This  post was written as a guest blog post for The Story of Health. 

If I get into a car accident and break my arm, please don’t bring me to my acupuncturist’s office. I want to go to the ER, have the bones set, and perhaps given something for the pain.

As new specialists emerge in the integrative medical setting, how does one know when to visit his or her primary care provider or Western Medicine specialist(s) versus a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner? When could seeing a TCM practitioner be advised over a Western doctor?

Below are some (but not all) reasons to consider visiting a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine.   Like doctors, some TCM practitioners have a general practice, while others have a practice specialty.

Women’s Health:

I often meet with women who have been on some form of hormonal oral contraceptives for 5, 10, 15+ years for various reasons: headaches, acne, irregular/painful/absent menses. When they try to start a family, many face the challenge of trying to correct the hormonal imbalances while hearing the ticks of their biological clocks. Addressing these imbalances as they are detected cannot only set a woman up for future fertility success, but also decreases the chances of accumulating large cysts or fibroids that might require surgery. Regulated hormones make for predictable, pain free cycles.

Chinese Medicine has much to offer women. Instead of giving more hormones to an already hormonally imbalanced woman, Chinese Medicine looks to regulate yin and yang and qi and blood.  The principles of the medicine are simple, but practitioners customize treatment plans based on the pattern differentiation.   Not all women with endometriosis, cysts, fibroids, etc. will receive the same acupuncture points, herbs, and dietary recommendations.  Addressing these individual constitutional tendencies and patterns will encourage the body’s own self-healing mechanisms and could prevent the need for invasive drugs or procedures.

Digestive Health:

Bowel movements should be regular, formed, easy to pass, and complete. Food should digest without bloating, pain, reflux, or excess gas. Everybody’s “normal” is different, but ongoing patterns like constipation, loose stool/diarrhea, blood in stool, reflux/indigestion/GERD, fatigue after eating often prelude future, more serious conditions: anemia, nutrient deficiency, recurring need for colonoscopy and other invasive (and expensive) procedures, not to mention the social inconveniences of some of these conditions.

Acupuncture, with dietary and herbal therapies, can benefit digestion and elimination, reduce symptoms, and prevent future, more serious and difficult to treat conditions.

Fighting Illness and Supporting Immune Health

I recommend to all of my patients that they come in when they are sick. The earlier the better. Cupping  is an effective technique to circulate the lung qi and vent a pathogen before it sinks deeper. Acupuncture and herbal medicine can be tailored to the specific presenting patters. For example, the common cold can be due to an invasion of wind-cold, wind-heat, cold-wind-dampness, or wind-dryness, etc.

TCM aims to treat symptoms while also strengthening the body’s self-healing mechanisms. When illness is treated in this way over time, the body can fully rely on itself to heal instead of over-the-counter or prescription medications that could be harmful if taken over long periods of time. Long-term patients report less frequent colds/sinus infections and less severe symptoms when they do fall sick.

Cancer Support

TCM has much to offer patients as complementary care before, during, and after cancer treatments. Patients should be under the supervision of an oncologist. Many doctors refer their patients for acupuncture as it is effective in easing nausea from chemotherapy drugs.  TCM practitioners also have many tools to address pain, conditions that were present before the cancer diagnosis, and the emotional stress that is often present in cancer patients (and their caregivers). TCM also works to strengthen the body’s own self-healing mechanisms so that it may fight the cancer and stay strong in the face of chemotherapies and other potent treatments.

Stress Management 

I also recommend treatment for patients when they are experiencing trying, stressful, or transitional times.   Moving, new jobs, loss of a loved one, unexpected circumstances, and relationship trouble are all forms of stress.  Many physical symptoms are aggravated by stress, and patients consistently report the benefits of acupuncture and TCM during these difficult times.

In general, TCM therapies are more gentle in nature than their Western counterparts. Multiple dosages and treatments may be necessary for optimal results, though improvements will be noted along the way. The slow, gentle approach may take longer, but without the potential severe negative side effects of surgery, antibiotics, and strong prescription medications. Treatment plans should be tailored until there are only positive side effects.

Molly B. Shapiro L.Ac., Dipl. O.M. is a licensed acupuncturist and diplomat of Oriental Medicine. She earned her Master’s Degree at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, California and also studied at the Chengdu University of TCM in Chengdu, China. Her practice is located in Bethesda, MD.

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