Oriental Medicine: Healing in Harmony With Nature
As the indigenous medicine of China for the past 3,000 to 5,000 years, Oriental medicine is now regarded as a whole medical system1 replete with diagnostic procedures and treatments designed to address the full spectrum of human illness and disease. The way in which Oriental medicine understands the “how” and “why” of suffering, the nature of health, and the mechanisms that underlie that lived experience of balance and well-being make it worthy of further exploration and study.
Oriental medicine is rooted in the two principles of Taoism:
- Everything that exists in the world can only be understood in relationship to everything else (interconnectedness)
- The laws that regulate the natural world govern us as well
Let us take a closer look at how these concepts are applicable to the practice of medicine, and how they result in an understanding of health and disease that is radically different from western medicine.
Patterns of Disharmony
The early physicians of Oriental medicine were great observers of the patterns of illness and disease. By keeping careful accounts of these observations over centuries, they were able to establish connections between symptoms and the health of a person’s organs. That is, they knew that when a particular symptom would appear, it would only occur in relation to a very specific set of other symptoms—never by itself. These connections are called “patterns of disharmony” and, to this day, they are what future doctors of Oriental medicine study in medical school. Both the diagnosis and treatment of conditions are based very precisely on understanding these patterns and choosing the correct treatment for each.
Let us look at an example: A patient comes to the clinic complaining of a sore throat. In addition to looking at the person’s throat, the physician takes the patient through a process called the Ten Questions, looking for patterns and corresponding symptoms. Some of the questions would be very similar to what an allopathic (traditional western) doctor would ask:
- When did this start? / How long have you had it?
- Does anything make it better or worse?
But the doctor of Oriental medicine would then go on to ask:
- What time of day is it better/worse?
- If it is worse at night, are you having night sweats? Heart palpitations?
- How is your sleep? Can you stay asleep throughout the night or do you wake up frequently?
- If you do wake up, can you fall back asleep easily or not?
- How is your thirst? Are you thirstier at night or during the day? Do you want cold drinks or warm beverages?
- How are you doing emotionally? Any anxiety? Anger? Depression?
And so on. They would then look at the patient’s tongue, noticing its color, shape, coat, moisture, and movement. All of these variations correspond with very particular patterns. Lastly, the physician would take the patient’s pulse—but only with minimal interest in the number of beats per minute. The system of pulse diagnosis in Oriental medicine is exquisitely refined and able to reveal a vast amount of information about the physical, psychological, and spiritual health of the patient. It is taken at 3 different positions on each wrist (6 positions in all) and is being checked for 28 possible pulse qualities. Our space does not allow for any greater explanations, but suffice it to say that pulse readings are an integral part of each pattern of disharmony.
Depending on the answers given, some possible diagnoses could be:
- Wind heat invading the lungs;
- Heart yin deficiency; or
- Kidney yang deficiency...