The emphasis in Chinese medicine is on the individual. Your symptoms will be viewed as the result of a unique set of imbalances or disharmonies within your body, and a Chinese doctor will choose specific herbs or acupuncture points to correct these and restore health.
The complex philosophy that Chinese medicine is based upon can be difficult for those brought up in the West to comprehend. At its base is the principle that all matter in the Universe, including the stars, the Earth and mankind, comes from one unified source called tao. Within tao there are two opposing forces: yin, which is seen as passive, dark and female, and yang, which is seen as active, light and male. Yin and yang exist in harmonious opposition, constantly changing and merging with each other, but always remaining in balance. This constant movement between the two creates an energy known as chi, or the life force.
In Chinese medicine, chi is believed to flow through the body via 14 vertical pathways, known as meridian lines, with each passing through a specific organ. If yin and yang become unbalanced in the body, then the flow of chi is disrupted. This can lead to blockages of energy, which Chinese doctors believe will cause ill health. An imbalance may be caused by pollution, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, an insufficient amount of rest or sleep, emotional upset, or mechanical obstructions such as tumours.
All areas of Chinese medicine are designed to restore the balance of yin and yang, thus letting chi flow smoothly, and allowing the body to heal itself.
In addition to the principles of yin and yang and chi, Chinese medicine also employs the law of the five elements. Explained in simple terms, the five element theory states that particular organs of the , body are linked with the five elements found in nature: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. To maintain good health each of the five elements must be in harmony. For example, metal is associated with the lungs, the large intestines, the nose and the skin. If you suffer from poor skin then the practitioner must determine which element is dominating metal.
As well as the theories of yin and yang and the five elements, there are many other diagnostic tools used in Chinese medicine to determine the cause of illness. One example of this is the concept of bodily imbalance. If you consult a Chinese doctor, you may be told that your symptoms are due to excess Heat, Fire, Cool, Wind, Dry or Damp in one or more of your organs. If these factors are viewed in relation to human illness, many similarities can be seen. An illness that is caused by Wind has symptoms that move around the body and are short lived, a cold for example. Like the wind, symptoms are mobile, almost 'gusty', such as muscular spasms and dizziness.
Excess Dampness causes `heavy' symptoms, such as phlegm, whilst Dryness brings about chapped skin, dry, brittle hair and dry coughs. Inflammation, skin eruptions and ulcers are all related to an excess of Fire, but Cold brings on pain that is `frozen' in one place and physical coldness. Just as in the natural world, where a subtle balance of the elements is vital for the maintenance of life, good health is dependent on keeping these elements in harmony.
The three basic types of Chinese medicine are the prescription of Chinese herbs to remedy disharmony; acupuncture, which involves the insertion of needles at specific points along the meridians in order to release the flow of chi; and acupressure, which involves applying pressure to specific points on the meridians.
It is thought that the analgesic effects of acupuncture and acupressure may come about because the brain can only receive a certain number of messages at one time as pressure messages reach the brain faster than pain messages, they effectively stop the pain messages from completing their journey. Modern practitioners of acupressure and acupuncture use up to 2000 specific points.
There is a very strong tradition of using herbal remedies in China. Texts documenting the use of Chinese herbs date back thousands of years. The classic text of Chinese herbalism is The Yellow Emperor's Canon o f Internal Medicine, thought to have been compiled over 2500 years ago. Current practitioners of Chinese medicine still study the ancient texts.
A Chinese herbalist does not look for any single cause or symptom in a patient but tries to find imbalances or patterns of disharmony. In order to restore the flow of chi, a special combination of herbs is prescribed, as well as dietary recommendations and sometimes acupuncture.
Some Chinese herbs, such as Gan Cao (liquorice), will be familiar to Westerners; others, such as He Shou Wu (fleece flower root), are more exotic. Chinese herbal medicine is used in the treatment of numerous conditions including migraine, cystitis, hormonal and digestive disorders and, more recently, in the treatment of chronic skin complaints such as eczema and psoriasis.
Some Chinese herbs are toxic and may cause side-effects always see a qualified Chinese herbalist before taking remedies. In some countries there are restrictions on which Chinese herbs may be sold.
It is reputed that the ancient Chinese first discovered the rudiments of acupuncture about 3500 years ago when they observed that some warriors wounded by arrows seemed to have relief from long-standing complaints once the wounds had healed.
As the meridians through which chi flows were identified, specific acupuncture points were mapped out. Sharp pieces of bone, bamboo or bits of ceramic were inserted into the points to restore the flow of chi.
Although modern acupuncture is based on ancient principles, its practice is very different acupuncturists use fine stainless steel needles that are either sterilised or disposed of after use. Insertion of the needles is quick and almost painless, although a tingling known as `needle sensation' may be felt. The practitioner may either manipulate the needles between finger and thumb, or pass an electric current through them.
Acupuncturists also practise a technique called moxibustion. This involves burning herbs (usually mugwort) to create a gentle heat close to acupuncture points. This is also believed to stimulate the flow of chi.
A first session with an acupuncturist can take anything up to 90 minutes as a detailed history of the patient is built up, the tongue is examined, the arterial pulses on the wrists (six on each) are taken and a general picture of health and demeanour is gathered.
During treatment, acupuncture needles may be left in place for between 10 minutes and half an hour. If the healing effects are dramatic, only one or two sessions may be needed. Some conditions may take longer to benefit but a degree of change should be expected after five sessions.
Asthma, depression, circulatory problems, back problems, addictions, chronic pain and menopausal symptoms have all been treated successfully with acupuncture. Many people turn to acupuncture to help them to give up smoking. Although acupuncturists should be scrupulous about using new or sterilised needles, you should be aware that there may be potential dangers of infection.
Applying pressure to acupuncture points on the body is known as acupressure and has been used for over 3000 years to give relief from minor ailments such as headaches, stomach upsets and insomnia. The principle of acupressure is the same as that of acupuncture, but instead of penetrating the body with needles, pressure is applied with the fingertips.
Acupressure is noninvasive and, as such, side effects are rare, although some people may experience worse symptoms before gaining relief. This is a good sign as far as practitioners are concerned, since it shows the body is endeavouring to re balance itself.
Applying pressure to a specific acupressure point can have effects on body organs that are a long way away from that point. For instance, pressing LI 4, which is found in the web of flesh between the thumb and the forefinger may not only help to relieve arthritic pain in the hand, it can also relieve problems in the facial area, head and colon.
How to apply pressure
Acupressure points are found all over the body and are situated in specific places along the 14 meridian lines. The points are named according to the particular meridian they are situated on. For example, the sixth pressure point on the spleen meridian will be referred to as Sp 6. This point may be used to treat exhaustion.
Some acupressure points are easier to locate than others. For instance, pressure point TB 17 (used to treat earache), which is found in the hollow behind the ear lobes, is actively easy to find, whereas St 36 (used to treat stomach pain), which is four finger widths below the kneecap towards the outside of the shinbone, may be more difficult to pinpoint. With practice and the aid of pressure point maps or photographs you should be able to teach yourself to locate points quite quickly. Alternatively, you can buy an electronic pressure point locator. This device emits a high-pitched bleep when it passes over an acupressure point it can also be used to apply pressure.
Some acupressure points are found on both sides of the body. For instance, TB 17 can be located in the hollows behind both earlobes. If this is the case, applying pressure to points on both sides of the body will increase the therapeutic effect.
Once you have selected and located the acupressure point that is appropriate to your symptom or condition you should use the tip of your finger to apply pressure to the point. You may find that the point feels tender. Pressure should be maintained for 20 seconds, released for 10 and then reapplied. Repeat this process up to six times.
If you are able to produce a radiating, tingling or numb sensation from the point, it is highly likely that you are applying pressure to the right spot. For best results, treat most points several times over the course of a few hours. As an alternative to fingertip pressure you can use the first knuckle of your forefinger, or thumb pressure. You can even use the flat or rubber end of a pencil, but make sure that you can accurately gauge how much pressure you are applying.