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.
Each of these denotes a discrete pattern of symptoms, and each would lead to a very different treatment plan. So much for a simple sore throat!
Once the whole pattern of symptoms is understood, the approach to treatment would take into account the whole of the person, not only the sore throat. This is a remarkable practice that treats each person in totality—body, mind, and spirit.
Methods of Treatment
There are five branches of Oriental medicine, each representing a different type of treatment:
- Herbal Medicine
Of these, acupuncture is the best known and most researched. The National Institute of Health’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Division 1 has committed enormous resources over the last 10 years to studying acupuncture’s potential role in alleviating a number of health issues, including the treatment of depression and the mitigation of the side effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients. The most significant of these to date has been the landmark study of acupuncture for osteoarthritis of the knee completed in 2004.2
Herbal medicine and diet treatments are also well known as methods for treating health issues, but you are probably not as familiar with Tui-Na or Qi-Gong. Tui-Na is a traditional meridian bodywork therapy that originated in China over 2,000 years ago. It involves a variety of techniques, including rolling, tapping,
and pressure, used for treating a broad range of disorders, including orthopedic and stroke rehabilitation. It is also widely used in pediatrics.
Qi-Gong is one of the oldest branches of Chinese medicine, and is considered one of the most powerful. It is a therapeutic method that uses the training of the mind, the breath, and the physiological processes of the body to improve health and well-being, maintain body/mind balance, and enhance longevity. It is made up of a series of exercises and movements that focus on cultivating one’s internal energy, or Qi, experiencing the sensation of Qi, and learning how to guide Qi internally through the meridians. This method is often used to improve well-being and relieve symptoms of acute and chronic disorders.
Oriental Medicine in the U.S.
A revolution is taking place in the practice of medicine in our country, with unprecedented access to highly efficacious and alternative forms of health care. It is amazing to think that at your next doctor’s appointment, for issues ranging from asthma to anxiety, irritable bowels to infertility, or migraines
to menopause, you might be just as likely to be given a prescription for acupuncture and Oriental medicine as for just about anything else.
Behty Harrison is the academic chair of the Bachelor of Science in Health and Wellness program for Kaplan University and the director for the Kaplan University Center for Health and Wellness. She comes to Kaplan University with an extensive background in the fields of psychology and complementary and alternative medicine. Ms. Harrison is a licensed acupuncturist and is recognized by the state of New Mexico as a doctor of Oriental medicine. Ms. Harrison was a clinician at the prestigious Integrative Medicine Clinic at Evanston-Northwestern Hospital in the Chicago area, which is associated with the Andrew Weil integrative medicine program.
She holds a master’s degree in psychology from the New School for Social Research in New York City and a bachelor’s degree in psychology and South Asian studies. She spent a year in India as part of her South Asian studies program and did a graduate fellowship in South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Ms. Harrison has an ongoing interest in meditation, Buddhism, music (piano, flute, cello, voice), and travel. She has done several sea kayaking trips in Alaska, Canada, and Baja, Mexico, and eco-travel to Costa Rica, where she river rafted and paddled in the rainforest amongst crocs and monkeys. Next, she hopes to travel to Antarctica.