Patients typically come to acupuncture and Chinese medicine for one of three reasons. Either they have some condition for which there is no full resolution with conventional Western medicine and are looking for an alternative treatment; or they are seeking complementary therapy to work in conjunction with their conventional treatment; or they have preference for utilizing some form of holistic medicine (including Chinese medicine) over Western medicine. This essay focuses on one additional situation to consider: Chinese medicine as supportive therapy when there are no other options at the time.
Current or new patients will generally inquire as to the effectiveness and success rate for treating a particular condition, such as neck pain, reflux, etc. There are, however, conditions for which Chinese medicine will not provide a cure, but can play an important supportive role in a person’s healing.
Three weeks ago I fell and broke my collarbone (just to note, I am back to work already). I knew right away it was broken, largely from the bone sticking up (though fortunately not protruding) through my chest. A few hours later, after waiting unattended at a prominent orthopedic urgent care near my home, I had X-rays confirm what I already knew. What I was offered by the attending physician’s assistant was a faint hope for surgery sometime in the next two weeks and a prescription for an opiod to manage pain in the interim (traditionally, there were Chinese medical doctors who specialized in acute injuries and bone-setting; this is not available in the West and so I was more than accepting of the need for surgical repair).
I could have had a punctured lung or artery in my neck. No one checked and fortunately I knew how to do that myself. But I was left with nothing other than a prescription for painkillers that I had no interest in taking, and a poorly fitting sling.
I have been to a third-world country where most people have literally no access to medical care. In this regard, I am grateful for the variety of medical care that we do have here in the U.S. At the same time, it seems unacceptable to me that a person should have to walk around (or stay impossibly still) without the possibility of immediate care, when we are surrounded by doctors, hospitals, surgeons, and urgent care centers.
I was fortunate. I had the knowledge and experience to manage my condition, but for most people untrained in any form of medical care, that is not the case.
There is another scenario my recent situation brings to mind;, in which a person requires some form of medical treatment, perhaps surgery, but other factors require that time pass first. For example, it is common that a person has degeneration of the cartilage in the knees and requires knee replacement surgery, but due to age or lifestyle or some other factor, surgery has to be postponed until a later date. In the above condition with my broken collarbone, the situation was acute; in the case of the knees, it is chronic. In both situations, a person is likely in pain and suffering with little hope of relief, not to mention access to a healthcare provider to ask follow-up questions or provide interim care, even if only emotionally. This is the exact situation where Chinese medicine can be of great value.
There are many situations, both acute and chronic, where acupuncture, herbs, and Chinese medicine overall can be of great value, but most people do not think to utilize them. Broken bones and acute injury represent this situation. While bone setting or surgery was necessary to repair the break in my collarbone, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine (taken internally and applied externally) were able to provide supportive treatment to alleviate pain, reduce swelling, and address the factors of injury that make the condition worse.
For three days before I had surgery, I ingested Chinese herbs to reduce pain, swelling, and bruising, with specific focus not only on soft tissue, but on bone as well. I applied liniments (liquid herbal extracts) directly to the site of injury. And I gave myself acupuncture to reduce pain and promote healing of the tissue.
It is true, as friends like to joke, that acupuncture was not going to fix this condition. But neither was cardiology, or pharmaceuticals, or anything other than bone setting or surgery. This does not reflect a lack of effectiveness of acupuncture. Instead, it merely reflects the fact that as human beings we need all sorts of medical care and therapies. Surgery is completely appropriate from the perspective of Chinese medicine. Post-surgery, acupuncture and herbs can play a significant role in promoting healing of soft tissue and bone. I have seen over and over again in my practice that people who utilize Chinese medicine to aid in their preparation for and recovery from surgery heal more quickly. While this is anecdotal, patients commonly receive feedback from their doctors and surgeons to support the observation.
For chronic conditions, such as the need for knee replacement, acupuncture and herbs can often reduce pain and increase function until permanent repair can be administered. In some cases, people may need support for only a few weeks or months. In other cases, I have seen Chinese medicine successfully allow a person to postpone surgery for years. In many cases, it is advantageous for a younger person to do this, as their age predisposes them to the need for a second replacement surgery later in life, which may be avoided by waiting a few years.
It is not only in cases of injury or pain that Chinese medicine can play an important supportive role. Patients often have internal conditions that are difficult to diagnose, and so there can be a prolonged period of suffering while doctors try to identify what is going on. A good example of this is prostate swelling or cancer. It can take months or even years to arrive at a final determination regarding a person’s condition. In the meantime, they may suffer with pain, and urinary or sexual dysfunction. Chinese medicine can provide relief for these conditions, even in the absence of more curative therapies.
Whatever your condition, Chinese medicine can help in some way. This includes not only reduction of pain or symptoms, but also support and guidance as to how to navigate and make decisions regarding treatment. If you need help, ask me or ask your Chinese medical practitioner for support.