Happy Chinese New Year! As many of you know, when I treat my patients with acupuncture, invariably I use traditional chinese veterinary medicine to make a chinese pattern diagnosis. This then helps me to pick the best acupuncture points to use to give the best outcome for my patients. But I know that most of us know very little about chinese medicine. It seems rather outlandish with crazy talk of ‘damp spleens’ and ‘windy livers’. So, it seemed sensible to use this chinese new year to try and explain what all this means and give you some understanding of the underlying concepts of traditional chinese medicine. I can only give you a taste of chinese medicine, and really what I’d like to do is open your eyes to the fact that whilst it sounds like crazy stuff, there is sense behind it. I want to introduce you to some cornerstones of chinese medical thinking and illustrate the applications of these principles.
Fundamentally, traditional chinese medicine comes from a time several thousand yeas ago when people couldn’t read or write, so they use allegories and metaphors to pass on information about symptoms andtreatments - in essence they told stories using things that they had seen around them in nature to explain a patient’s conditions. For example, the traditional chinese medicine practitioners would describe seizures as a wind condition - either an ‘invasion’ of wind, or an internally generated wind. Now, if we consider what a seizure looks like, it comes about suddenly, the affected individual thrashes around and then suddenly it stops. That’s fairly similar to a gust of wind appearing out of nowhere one moment, shaking the trees and then being gone a moment later. When we think about it in these terms, suddenly chinese medicine doesn’t seem quite so crackers! A lot of chinese medicine descriptions correspond to things that we see in the natural world, - wind, damp, cold, heat, summer heat, dry. The lungs are considered susceptible to dry - and we know how painful it can be when we are breathing very dry air, so again this makes sense when put into the context of passing information on in an allegorical or metaphorical form.
In addition, the chinese were masters of observation, they linked organs together several millennia ago that we have only recently been able to link together scientifically. As an example, 4000 years ago the chinese linked the kidneys and the bone marrow. Scientists discovered in the 1970’s that the kidneys produce erythropoietin, also known as EPO, which causes the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells (EPO has been at the centre of many drug abuse scandals in sport). That's pretty remarkable that the chinese linked these two areas of the body such a long time before we had the science to back it up!
Chinese pattern diagnosis takes into account many different clinical signs, from behaviour, sleep patterns, temperature preferences, emotions, nail and pad condition, skin condition as well as the more well known tongue and pulse diagnosis, to the more typical questions that you might get asked by a vet such as the animal's habits of urinating, defecting, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, appetite and drinking patterns. All of this is put together to determine an overall pattern and then treat this using points to nourish or remove what is ‘out of balance’. I will be honest, I had pretty good results with my acupuncture when I used western acupuncture as my point selector. Western acupuncture works more on spinal segments, picking points to treat any affected spinal segments or adjacent one, and using local needles to work on areas of tenderness. However, once I moved to picking my points using traditional chinese veterinary medicine I found that I was getting far superior results, and treating other issues as well, more behavioural or emotional ones (oftentimes these outcomes were entirely unexpected!).
Chinese medicine doesn’t just consist of acupuncture, but also herbs, tui nai (a form of massage), exercise and food therapy. Today, we can appreciate that our health is definitely improved by our diet and exercise, and who doesn't feel better after a wonderful massage?!
This is the very briefest of introductions to some of the background concepts of chinese medicine (and I haven't even mentioned Qi!), and really my aim is to open your eyes to some of the sense that can be seen within it when we consider it in the context of where it all started. The chinese written language is a language of pictures, so it makes even more sense to describe things in terms of stories and metaphors. Fundamentally though when I consider it's use through acupuncture, it’s just a different, and for my money a more specific, way of picking points. Given that I have veterinary acupuncturists who I I greatly respect and would happily allow to treat my dog Oscar and who are highly trained in western acupuncture, calling me when they are in consults asking for my advice and if I’ve got any specific points for a particular condition (and you can imagine it’s a tricky one to answer as I need to see and feel the animal to make a decent pattern diagnosis!), I feel that I have the superior system to hand! Chinese medicine is a stand alone medical system in it’s own right, but, having said that, when we use both western and eastern medicine together in an integrative form, we can often have the best possible outcome for our patients.