What is Oriental Medicine?

Oriental Medicine in a nutshell:
The term “Oriental Medicine” is used in the West to refer to a form of medicine that originated in East Asia thousands of years ago. The oldest known documentation of this medicine dates back to around 500 BCE. However, these source documents show that even by this time it had already been developed into a comprehensive diagnostic and treatment system. Its distant origins are not clear but over time the earlier theories were systematically refined to the level of a high medical art in China. This medicine eventually spread to Japan, Korea, and the rest of the Far East, and was later introduced to the West through the travels of Marco Polo during the early 1200’s. The most common form of Oriental Medicine practiced in the U.S. today is referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Contrary to popular belief, the use of the word “Traditional” does not imply this medicine is a relic from the ancient past. Although its beginnings can be traced back several thousand years, the medicine has been in a state of continual evolution during its long history. Theories that were proven to be effective were developed further, while those that were not validated were discarded. This constant refinement continues today, giving us a healing tradition that is modern and alive. Chinese medicine still uses some time proven tools like acupuncture and herbal medicine to help the body heal itself. However the application of these tools has grown and evolved to deal with diseases and conditions caused by the problems of modern living. A list of conditions treated by acupuncture and oriental medicine can be found here.

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Some people question whether Oriental Medicine has really modernized since it appears not to have “caught up” with Western Medicine. After all, if modern Western Medicine represents the peak of scientific achievement, shouldn’t Oriental Medicine look just like it? This idea springs from a misunderstanding of how Oriental Medicine and Western Medicine approach the human body.

Throughout the course of history humans have attempted to understand the workings of the natural world. In an effort to explain our observations we create a narrative, a story that attempts to connect these observations into a theory of how everything fits together. We forget sometimes this story can be flawed and is not necessarily “The Truth.” Many times over the course of the history of science what was once believed to be the ultimate understanding of nature was later replaced by a new belief, a new “Truth.” What does that say about the previous belief? Apparently it wasn’t “The Truth.” This is not to say that a revision of previously held beliefs is bad; on the contrary, it is what learning is all about. However, the insistence that what we know at the current time is the ultimate truth is not only dangerous but stops the learning process.

The current story that we call “science” views the natural world as a machine that can be understood by breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Consequently, contemporary Western Medicine, also called bio-medicine, basically views the human body as a biological machine that can be controlled by breaking it down to its component parts that can be understood and manipulated. Laboratory tests and hi-tech equipment are used to understand the mechanics, while pharmaceutical drugs and surgery are typically used to manipulate the affected body parts to produce desired outcomes. This type of medicine excels in acute care scenarios like trauma, heart attacks, strokes, disease pandemics, and other immediately life threatening situations. In these situations strong intervention is necessary to keep the whole system from shutting down. In China, too, Western Medicine is frequently used for the treatment of critical care issues.

However, the strength of this approach is also its shortcoming. Although a “parts” focused approach is useful in situations where strong intervention is necessary, this approach doesn’t always work so well with regard to chronic health issues. The human body is not just a loose collection of parts but rather a finely tuned system wherein all the organ systems are constantly communicating with each other. If the communication is balanced an optimum state of health can be experienced. (Health is defined here as not just the absence of disease but a state of peak performance where vitality is evident.) However, if one organ system is either under-functioning or over-functioning this inter-organ communication will not function properly. This imbalance can manifest as a myriad of chronic symptoms such as low energy, sleep disturbance, aches and pains, visual and audial impairment, lowered immunity, abnormal blood pressure, non-specific chest pains, and many others. In general, these are not considered life threatening situations, but are certainly quality-of-life threatening conditions and indicators of a sub-optimal level of health.

Although these symptoms may be controlled by treating a single organ with strong pharmaceutical drugs or even removal of body parts, the imbalance between the organ systems will not be addressed by this approach. Consequently, unintended consequences can occur, which we generally refer to as side effects. Further, these new symptoms may manifest in an organ system that seems unrelated to the original condition. This typically results in a new diagnosis of a different named condition, for which is prescribed another drug that is focused on treating a different organ. Over time this can result in a cascade of new symptoms followed by an increasing number of prescription drugs.

In a critical care, save-your-life, situation we may be willing to tolerate some side effects of the treatment since, after all, it saved our life. But is this desirable or necessary for a non-life-threatening condition? Many patients with chronic conditions who are treated with strong pharmaceutical drugs end up feeling that the aftermath of the “cure” is worse than the condition they were treated for. What is often more appropriate and more effective in a chronic care scenario is a system that views the body as one unified organism. This is what is generally referred to as a “whole-istic” approach. While most frequently written as “holistic”, this alternative spelling emphasizes the idea that these systems look not just at separate organs but at the body as a whole.

Oriental medicine is one of the earliest systems of such an approach. Oriental Medicine is not concerned with lab values or other tests. Instead it uses a time-tested diagnostic protocol that evaluates complex symptom patterns to indicate not only single organ dysfunction but dysfunction between organ systems. By looking at this symptom “picture” the practitioner can determine how well a particular system is functioning as well as the functional interplay between all body systems. In this way a comprehensive treatment plan can be developed that aims to restore the natural balance between the organ systems.
Since the diagnostic approach is different, it should not be a surprise that wholistic systems have a much different approach to treatment. These treatments, including acupuncture and herbal medicine are not aimed at just a single organ but at balancing the interplay between all the organs. In this way not only are symptoms alleviated but deeper causal factors are eliminated, bringing the whole body into a higher level of function. To learn more please call us for a complementary 15 minute consultation.

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