How can you treat so many different diseases with Chinese Medicine?
Surely you can't "specialize" in everything. . .
The term “specialist”
is something unique to Western medicine – endocrinologist, gastroenterologist,
family physician, etc. Specialties are not as applicable in Chinese medicine because
it is a different system of medicine. We have a tendency to look at Western
medicine as the form of medicine;
however, there are many forms and systems of medicine and Western medicine is
simply one of these forms, not the form. Chinese medicine is a
comprehensive and sophisticated system that is separate from, but not inferior to,
Western medicine. Both Chinese and Western medicine are logical, clinically
tested, and well defined systems that can provide effective treatment in their
Ted J. Kaptchuk,
O.M.D. beautifully illustrates the differences between the two forms of medicine.
Following is a summary of pages 2 - 5 from his book, "The Web That Has No
The logical structure
underlying the technique and mental operations which guide the physician differ
radically in these two traditions of medicine. As a result, the two different
logical structures have pointed the two medicines in different directions.
Western medicine is
primarily concerned with isolable disease categories or agents of disease which
it zeroes in on, isolates, and tries to change, control, or destroy. The
Western physician starts with a symptom, and then searches for the underlying
mechanism - a precise cause for a specific disease. The disease
may affect various parts of the body, but it is relatively a well-defined and
self-contained. Precise diagnosis frames an exact, quantifiable description of
a narrow area. The physicians logic is analytic, cutting through the
accumulation of bodily phenomena to isolate
one single entity or cause. What “X” is causing “Y”?
For example: Four
patients come in complaining of abdominal pain that comes and goes,
indigestion, feeling of fullness or bloating, and nausea. After following
appropriate Western diagnostic procedures (such as an endoscopy and/or H.pylori
breath test, etc.), the physician determines all four patients are suffering
from a peptic ulcer caused by a bacterial infection of H.pylori. The physician
has isolated a specific disease (peptic ulcer) with a specific cause (bacterial
infection of H.pylori). All four patients receive an antibiotic treatment of
In contrast, the
Chinese physician directs his or her attention to the complete individual – the entire physiological and psychological makeup
of the patient. This is holism, or holistic medicine. All information,
including the symptoms as well as the patient's other general characteristics,
is gathered and woven together until it forms what Chinese medicine calls a
"pattern of disharmony." This pattern of disharmony then helps to
describe the situation of "imbalance" in a patient's body. Oriental
medical diagnosis renders a description of the patient as a whole rather than isolating a specific cause. The question of
cause and effect is always secondary to the overall pattern. One does
not ask, "What X is causing Y," but rather, "What is the relationship between X and Y." Chinese
medicine attempts to organize symptoms and signs into understandable
configurations. The total of these configurations provides the "pattern of
disharmony," which then provides the framework for the plan of treatment.
Let’s use the same
example as above: Four patients come in complaining of abdominal pain that
comes and goes, indigestion, feeling of fullness or bloating, and nausea. The
Chinese medical physician conducts his or her diagnostic procedure and looks at
the entire physiological and psychological makeup of the patient and finds the
Patient 1: Upon
physical examination, the physician finds that the abdominal pain increases
with touch, but diminishes with the application of cold. The patient has a
robust constitution, broad shoulders, a reddish complexion, and a full, deep
voice. He is assertive and aggressive, even challenging the physician. He is
constipated and has dark yellow urine. His tongue has a greasy yellow coating.
The Chinese medical physician places him in a pattern of disharmony called “Damp
Heat Affecting the Spleen.” The patient receives a treatment based on this
Patient 2: Upon
examination, the physician finds this patient to be thin with an ashen complex
yet ruddy cheeks. She is constantly thirsty, her palms are sweaty, and she has
a tendency towards constipation and insomnia. She seems nervous and fidgety and
unable to relax. She is constantly on the go and has been unable to be in a
stable relationship. Her tongue is dry and slightly red with no coating. The
Chinese medical physician places her in a pattern of disharmony called “Deficient
Yin Affecting the Stomach.” She receives a treatment based on this pattern, a
treatment completely different from Patient 1.
Patient 3: This
patient reports that massage and heat somewhat alleviate his pain, which he
describes as a minor yet persistent discomfort. He is temporarily relieved by
eating. He dislikes cold weather, has a pale face, and wants to sleep a lot.
His urine is clear and frequent. He appears timid, shy, and almost afraid. He
seems unable to look the physician in the eye and his head seems to hang in despair.
His tongue is moist and pale. The Chinese medical physician places him in a
pattern of disharmony called “Deficient Cold Affecting the Spleen.” He receives
treatment based on this pattern, and again, the treatment is completely
different from Patient’s 1 and 2.
Patient 4 receives the
same exam, but a different diagnosis. It is found that he has “Excess Cold and
Dampness Affecting the Spleen and Stomach.” He receives a treatment based on
his unique pattern, which is different from the previous three patients.
The Chinese system of
medicine is based on the idea that no single part can be understood except in
its relation to the whole. A symptom is not traced back to a cause, but is
looked at as a part of the totality. If a patient complains of a symptom,
Chinese medicine wants to know how the symptom fits into the patients entire
being and behavior. In Western medicine, a symptom is traced back to an
isolated cause – an infection of H.pylori causing peptic ulcers. In Chinese
medicine, all signs and symptoms are used to establish a pattern unique to the
patient being treated.
This is not to say one
form of medicine is superior to the other; it is simply to illustrate the
difference between the two and provide an explanation as to why Chinese
medicine does not have “isolated diseases” (such as peptic ulcers, strep
throat, or colitis) nor do they place their practitioners into “specialties.”