Much like gardening, the ancient practice of traditional Chinese medicine is a multifaceted discipline. A gardener must investigate the soil, climate, sun's orientation, season and more before choosing what to plant and how to care for it.
In traditional Chinese medicine, a patient's entire constitution — overall health, diet, lifestyle and exercise habits — are uncovered while discussing current symptoms.
The practitioner then creates a custom treatment, pulling from Chinese medicine's several branches: acupuncture, herbal therapy, physical therapy, massage, lifestyle and diet counseling and qigong.
"The beauty of the whole umbrella of TCM is it's treating the whole person, and it's using what we call pattern diagnosis," says Jenn Collins Lac, founder of Ashland Holistic Health. "We're not just treating symptoms; we're looking at the entire body and coming up with a diagnosis based on that person's pattern."
Patterns are determined by amassing information about body temperature, energy levels, sleep habits, digestion, appetite, pain, cravings, sweating and taking a visual reading of the tongue.
This information is used to determine whether the person is yin or yang, says Collins.
"Being active, social, warm and awake are all yang; resting, quiet, sleeping, cool are all yin qualities. We all need a balance between those two aspects in our life, and we're trying to figure out if a person is having something that's excessive or deficient."
If someone's not resting well at night, she most likely doesn't have enough yin in her system. "We would encourage her to do more yoga, reading, resting and to stay cool to bring her back in balance," says Collins.
A carefully orchestrated herbal remedy may also be prescribed to help support diet and lifestyle changes.
For specific physical maladies, such as pain or injury, a TCM practitioner might recommend acupuncture, says Teresa Bresnan, owner of Acupuncture and Natural Health Center in Medford.
"If a nerve is constantly firing for pain," she explains, "the acupuncture will break that and reestablish a healthy nerve, thus decreasing the message for pain and establishing what we call homeostasis, the body's state of being healthy."
Increasing the body's circulation is the headline.
"If there is an area of inflammation, increasing the circulation will decrease the swelling and the pain and the redness," Bresnan says. "And you can see that immediately during a treatment."
Massage, reflexology and physical therapy aided by electrical stimulation may be used in conjunction with acupuncture.
"Results can be miraculous; but don't expect that," counsels Bresnan, who generalizes that for every year of pain the patient has experienced, a month of treatment is needed, with one or two sessions a week. "If you've had one day of pain, one day might be enough; if you've had 10 years of pain, look at half a year of sessions."
Acupuncture goes back roughly 2,500 years before the age of stainless-steel needles (they first used needles made of bamboo and stone). Based on the theory that bodies have meridians, or pathways, that allow energy and circulation to flow properly, acupuncture was first inspired by something quite "mundane," says Ken Bendat Lac, owner of the Center for Chinese Medicine in Ashland.
"The Chinese were building a canal system, and they posited that in our bodies, just like out there in the world, we could open and shut these canals," he says.
The herbal side of Chinese medicine developed separately, with the oldest known book of herbal remedies dating back more than 1,800 years. Shang Han Lun ("On Cold Damage") addressed the theory that illness comes from outside the body in the form of cold that works its way in, usually slowly.
"We need to take herbal remedies to push it back out because once it takes root inside, it leads to things," Bendat says. "The formula will be warm and open your pores to let it out. These formulas are still the ones I use today."
The Wenbing (Warm Disease) book, conversely, addresses "all the hot stuff that comes in, such as petulant diseases," says Bendat. "Sometimes it's not just cold; when something warm comes in, the person gets sick right away, has fevers and can die in a day. We use a lot of those formulas today to treat things modern medicine doesn't understand, like autoimmune diseases."
Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and AIDS are all considered warm diseases.
Although practitioners often specialize in either acupuncture or herbs, these two approaches, along with diet and lifestyle counseling, create the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine. Today's proponents strongly believe this system of ancient, natural treatments can lead to measurably improved health with very little risk to the patient.
"In a way, it's funny that it should be called alternative because there is such respect for TCM's immense history," says Bendat. "Almost all the countries in the world that have some sort of government-sponsored medicine for the people include acupuncture as an option."