Monday, February 20, 2012

Understanding Chinese Medicine in five minutes or less

I've been thinking a lot about how to explain Chinese Medicine to Western minds. Trying to describe the non-linear thinking of TCM to very linear thinking Western minds is very challenging. I gave a lecture recently at a local public library and while I was talking I realized that what I was saying was probably very confusing since acupuncture theories require looking at the body (and mind and emotions) in a perspective that is foreign to Western minds (plus I saw the perplexed looks on everyone's faces). After talking for about 45 minutes I asked "is everyone sufficiently confused now?" to which the audience laughed and I went on to answer questions.

But this begs the question: How do you get across the vital information without it becomeing too overwhelming? Patients try so hard to understand how acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine is helping them to feel better and I try very hard to explain it to them, but at a certain point, you hit information overload. What is useful information and what makes that information confusing? The basic language of Chinese medicine uses words with which we are familiar, but in ways that are new to us. A Spleen in the Western concept of anatomy and physiology is very different from how acupuncturists view the Spleen. Rather than being a lesser organ that the body can survive without, TCM views the Spleen as a vitally important organ, not just in and of itself, but because of how the body functions as a whole. You cannot have one weak link and expect everything to just go on as usual.

The biggest idea that people have trouble with is that the whole body works as a unit. Not only is the "knee bone connected to the thigh bone" but the Heart, Lungs, Kidneys, Liver and Spleen all work together as well. Often times when people come to see me there is not just one thing "wrong" with them, but a cascade of issues, each interrelated in some way. I see the big picture, while they see the parts and pieces. Getting a patient to understand how the parts and pieces fit together is my challenge; some patients don't care and just say "stick me" but many want to know what I'm doing and what is going on.

So how do you explain such a complex medicine to someone who essentially speaks a different language? It took me years to learn this medicine in a way that made sense, how can I expect my patients to understand it in a 5 minute conversation?

The short answer is: I can't because they won't.

And that is kind of the point. The podiatrist can explain to you why your foot hurts (and I probably can too) but she's only looking at your foot, not how your foot connects to the rest of your body. And it does. How your foot hits the ground will affect how your back and neck feel on a regular basis. The podiatrist does not set out to heal your neck pain, but might by helping your foot.  Explaining how insomnia, anxiety, dry skin and lower back pain are connected is what I do, but it is not always simple. Over time, my patients start to learn my language. Because acupuncture works cumulatively, I typically see each patient multiple times. Over the course of weeks or months or even years, they start to have a better understanding of what this medicine is all about. The big "take away" is that all the parts and pieces make up the whole and that is why living one's life in a balanced way leaves you feeling more balanced, and why sometimes one health complaint can morph into many.

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