The Scientific Method. As a biology student, I have had that phrase and what it means drilled into me for years. Observe, develop an idea, predict an outcome, experiment, assess, and refine the idea. Then repeat the experiment. If it reveals some interesting new aspect of science, document what you have done in the hopes that other people will experiment. In that the results and eventually your revelations can be proven. Western Medicine, as one aspect of science, follows the same basic pattern. Drugs are developed over years of experimenting in laboratories across the country. Eventually, this leads to the creation of better antibiotics, pain relievers, and allergy/asthma medications. Eventually, these get to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA does its own testing and eventually accepts the new drug as both safe and effective in countering whatever illness, condition, or injury it is used for.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is not based on the Scientific Method. There are no laboratories testing new treatments across the world and employing a regulated and generally accepted scientific approach to their result. That is the basis for many people’s difficulty with seeing TCM as a useful means of treating health. From that core difference many issues have developed – that the methodologies are different between Western medicine and TCM, that TCM’s effectiveness cannot be measured, that there is no regulating organization dedicated to monitoring and educating TCM practitioners, that there may be contaminants in the cures, that traditional cures may interact unexpectedly with other medications, and that some traditional cures can have harmful side effects.
At the core of the problem is the fact that TCM methodologies are both complex and based on different ideas than conventional medicine (Kastner 45). Not only does the West consider everything through the Scientific Method, but health is considered in terms of chemistry. If the body is short of potassium, the doctor gives the patient potassium pills. If the mind is not firing correctly, a person is prescribed the tablets that contain the drugs to help it fire correctly.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on clearing the lines of energy in the body and helping the body heal itself with everyday cures (Fu, 2005; “Traditional Chinese Medicine”, 2015). For example, when my mother would get Beriberi, which sheds the lower skin from the feet and causes a reduced ability to taste, we would go buy a Western medication called Beriberi ointment. This would cause the symptoms to subside. Once my mother stopped using the ointment, though, the symptoms would eventually come back.
Eventually, my mother decided to see a TCM practitioner instead. The doctor gave us a very different treatment. First, he had my mother bathe her feet in water and white vinegar at a 3:1 ratio. Next, she was told to eat Adlay Congee Rice three times a day. She took her treatments and her condition cleared up after a month. At that point she stopped bathing her feet, but she incorporated Adlay Congee Rice into her diet, and has now been symptom free for six months.
That brings me to a second problem with TCM, a lack of rigid scientific evidence. When an FDA-approved drug hits the market, it has not only been proven through years of development and testing in labs across the United States, it has been tested for side effects as well as interactions with other medications by the FDA. If a drug comes out to help with allergies, or lower blood pressure, a person can be certain it does exactly that and won’t cause liver damage or any other side effects unless those possibilities are on the package.
TCM cures have not undergone years of strict scientific testing, nor were they developed in laboratories or by people using the scientific method. That is an undeniable fact. The scientific method did not even exist when TCM was developing, so there was no chance of using it to develop medications. However, Chinese medicine has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years as an effective cure for hundreds of diseases and ailments. Does it cure everything, of course not, but it has been proven millions of times over all those years (Tierra, Par. 3).
A third obvious issue with TCM is that there is no controlling organization which regulates prescriptions and certifies people as there is with Western Medicine. In many cases, it would be impractical to try regulating TCM because very often the system of medicine an individual practices has been handed down from generation to generation in his own family. However, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government has begun “formulating a series of guiding principles and policies to support and promote its development.” (“Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2015). It is still possible for a person to fake expertise and practice because TCM is not associated with Western medical centers as much as with less strict homeopathic specialists, but if China is any indication, that is a potential issue that may not exist for much longer. In Australia, it does not. Jiguo, Yang, and Xu Hong have recently catalogued all the qualified practitioners there, as well as listing their specialties and addresses (Jiguo and Hong, 2008)
Three more effective points are made against TCM in “Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction”: “Some Chinese herbal products may be safe, but others may not be. There have been reports of products being contaminated with drugs, toxins, or heavy metals or not containing the listed ingredients. Some of the herbs used in Chinese medicine can interact with drugs, can have serious side effects, or may be unsafe for people with certain medical conditions.” (2015). That is, TCM remedies may have contaminants, may interact with drugs, and may be unsafe for persons with certain medical conditions.
Going point by point, there may be contaminants (drugs, toxins, or heavy metals) is a reasonable accusation. One ointment for joint issues involves ginger root, alcohol, and orange peels. If either the doctor or the patient goes to a store and purchases those ingredients they very well could have a contaminant that might render the cure ineffective or harm the patient. Then again, every once in a while a medical transcriptionist makes a mistake in copying a prescription, or a pharmacist misreads the drug that has been requested and a patient gets the wrong medication. Occasionally, someone gets an inoculation their dose contains a few live viral cells instead of dead ones. Personally, I am less worried about the food and herbs being contaminated than the drugs being wrong.
That a traditional Chinese cure might interact negatively with drugs also seems perfectly reasonable. TCM cures were in use thousands of years before most modern drugs were even conceived of. Of course the medical people who developed them had no way of knowing whether or not they would be harmful to a person taking Viagra or Advair in 2015. Perhaps the best resolution to that problem would be a little testing. Other alternatives would be to inform both the TCM and medical doctors of what each is prescribing to their patient. A person might also think about taking all their problems with the TCM practitioner to avoid any confusion.
Finally, a TCM remedy might be harmful to persons with certain medical conditions. Again, the statement is almost too obvious to even consider. Would an intelligent person tell a Western doctor about issues they were having and not make sure the doctor already knew about a previous cardiopulmonary condition, or allergies, or some other issue? Would that same person not tell their Western doctor about any medications he or she was taking? If a patient does not give any doctor all of his or her personal and medical information the doctor is being set up to fail.
The above points account for all of the main arguments against TCM as a useful and equal medical option. In balance, though TCM does have its limitations the Chinese approach to medicine weathers them all quite well. There is also a pair of points in its favor which Western medicine has no response or even counterpoint to. First, though it doesn’t take too much digging to find a Western malpractice case or a news story about bad medicines or inoculations, finding something about a TCM malpractice or a fraud is much more difficult.
Second, TCM is not designed simply to heal the sick. Its purpose is to understand the human body well enough to make it healthy and then maintain that health. At the center of its goal are the body’s energy lines. In TCM, foods, exercise, and the way of life are tailored around keeping a person’s energy lines healthy and vibrant. If the energy lines are strong, a person remains healthy. If one or more are blocked then the person is treated even if there is no medical problem by the standards of Western medicine
Of course, Western medicine practitioners are after the same end result and most doctors legitimately want to help people, but Western medicine seeks to accomplish this differently. A person stays healthy by eating “right” and getting “plenty of exercise”. If a person has a weakness in their body’s defenses they take drugs – one for high blood pressure, allergies, ADHD, cognition, or whatever else the problem might be. However, the approach has inherent problems. For instance, it is not uncommon for stronger drugs to create their own issues. Allergy drugs can cause long-term stomach problems. ADHD medications can cause sterility. With Western medicine, each cure can cause more problems, whose cure in turn is more drugs.
TCM is designed so that there are no ongoing issues because it does not address the problem so much as the root of a problem, and it does not create artificial chemicals it makes use of chemicals the body is used to and in the forms a body is familiar with. If a person has allergies it is because one of the energy lines is not quite functioning properly. When the energy line is corrected or unblocked it is done using items the body would normally interact with. For instance, one effective cure involves the allergic substances, a certain color of light, and acupuncture needles to help activate the nerves. Because of this approach, there are no necessary side effects. Of course some cures don’t interact well with others, but practitioners are aware of the problems and avoid them – as long as the patient keeps them informed.
Over the years, several points against TCM have been raised. Most of them, such as side effects and poor potential drug interaction, are valid, but then the same can be said of Western medicine, and with a greater frequency. It has also been said that TCM is not a product of the strict scientific environment that has produced modern drugs. That is true. Then again, TCM does not cause as many problems as Western medicine, either. That realization leads the present author to an interesting question. Maybe Western medicine has a bias against TCM that prevents it from accepting TCM as a valid and sometimes superior alternative. Perhaps, practitioners of Western medicine feel threatened? Or drug companies are concerned about falling profits? Or maybe it is just difficult for people who have spent decades of their life learning about healing people to admit to themselves that they only know half of what there is to know. Regardless of the reasons behind Western medicine’s reticence about it, though, TCM is a valid form of medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine. Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, n.d. Web. 18 July, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.chinaeducenter.com/en/cedu/tcm.php
Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2015). Web. 18 July, 2015. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm
Jiguo, Yang and Xu Hong. “External Application of Herbal Medicine to Acupoints.” Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 28.1 (2008): 21-3. Web. 17 July, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0254627208600084.
Kastner, Jörg. Chinese Nutrition Therapy. Stuttgart: Thieme, 2009. Print.
Tierra, Michael. About Chinese Herbal Medicine. Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine. (2015). Web. 16 July, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.rchm.co.uk/AboutCHM.htm.