MUSCLE RELAXED: A foreign patient receives the traditional Chinese medicine massage at the Guang An Clinic in Beijing (BAI SHI)
I have a confession, and it's one that I'm sure my Chinese colleagues will berate me for: When it came to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I was a bit of a doubter.
I didn't doubt that Chinese medicine could be effective. I just wasn't sure that in this age of modern medicine, where pharmacies have come to resemble Hogwarts Potions Labs, whether Chinese remedies could just be replaced by something bottled or brewed in your local chemist and for a third of the price.
It's a doubt, as well, that has gained some traction in the West. One recent U.S. study, conducted at the University of Maryland, had 23 patients given real acupuncture and 24 given sham acupuncture, with needles being inserted into random parts of skin. In both cases, both the doctors and the patients believed their treatment was real. When the treatment was completed, both test cases reported that they experienced pain relief and that their symptoms had improved.
So for me the question remains: Are acupuncture and other forms of TCM effective remedies, or are they only effective because patients expect them to work?
This was the question that was burning inside me when I visited the Guang An Clinic in Beijing. And it was a question for which I would endure some amount of pain, in search of an answer.
The Guang An Clinic is quite a remarkable institution. Primarily comprised of retired doctors and medical practitioners, the clinic deals with patients who might otherwise be unable to afford medical care. As an Australian who has come to view my own national health care with a fair amount of cynicism, this kind of passion for serving the community was quite overwhelming.
Guang An also sets itself apart from other Beijing hospitals through its specialization in TCM. Unlike Western medicines, TCM is much more than simply a method of treating sickness and pain. It is an entirely unique way of conceptualizing the human body and its seemingly infinite number of functions. I thought I was suffering from a bad back and an aching foot. For my doctor, it was a much more complex affair.
For her, there was an imbalance in my natural energy or qi that needed rectifying. The rhythm and flow of my qi, which courses through the "meridians" of my body, had been disrupted and needed to be re-stimulated, and jolted back into motion.
This stimulation could be achieved through two TCM treatments: acupuncture and ba guan, or cupping.
While I had done my research before coming to the Guang An Clinic, there was very little that could have prepared me for the rather bizarre sensual assault that were these two treatments.
The cold metal of the needles pried open the knotted sinews of my shoulders, exploring the crevices of my back with their tiny fingernails. The doctor then attached the electrodes to the needles, warning me of the oncoming sensation of pins lurching up and down inside my skin. I could feel the electricity pulsating through my body, my skin seemingly hurling up and down in a continuous, wave-like stream.
And yet, after all this peculiar discomfort, I was told that this was only the appetizer. Acupuncture may be widely known (if not widely understood) in the West, but ba guan was like something from another planet.
Ba guan is believed to play a similar function to acupuncture—it mobilizes blood flow in order to promote healing. The intricate process of ba guan—of creating a small amount of suction by placing and then quickly removing a flaming cotton ball inside a cup and then placing the cup on the effected part of the body—was something I had to learn about after my treatment. With my head buried in a pillow, the only signs I had of the treatment were the flashes of flame that popped into my periphery and the painful sucking sensation on my back. Almost a week later, I still bear the marks of the procedure—a series of large circular bruises that look like I was in the firing line of a particularly vicious paintball attack.
While I wouldn't exactly call myself a born again convert, my experience of TCM has put to rest a number of my previous doubts. And in response to my initial question, as to the effectiveness of TCM, well, maybe it's not quite that straightforward.
Attempting to hold acupuncture and ba guan to the same standards as modern medicine is in many respects a futile exercise. As Chinese medical expert Manfred Porkert explains, they just aren't really equivalent. TCM is as much a spiritual remedy as it is a physical remedy. And the mysterious force of qi is not something you could find using a thermometer or stethoscope (though many have tried).
If you were to hold TCM to the same standard, however, you would find a wealth of evidence pertaining to its effectiveness. Studies have shown that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for obesity, kidney damage, high blood pressure and post-surgery pain. The most intriguing of Western studies has even suggested that acupuncture pressure points can be revealed via CT scanning.
But perhaps this is all beside the point. Did the treatment alleviate the stiffness in my back and the pain in my foot? Absolutely. Was that simply a psychological effect, a result of my expectation that I would feel better? Quite possibly.
But my experience didn't begin and end with the pain relief that the treatment gave me. There was something invigorating about the experience, which I have struggled to put my finger on. My back doesn't feel "fixed" in the way that surgery may "fix" a broken bone. Instead, my body feels deeply refreshed. As if someone has washed and cleansed me from the inside out, with all impurities sucked and zapped from my body. Much like the feeling you have after a spa or aromatherapy, there is a reinvigorating quality to TCM, which is not entirely physical. Maybe it's emotional or psychological. Or just maybe, as many practitioners believe, it's something spiritual?
Suffice to say that while TCM may not entirely hold up against the rigorous questioning of modern science, make sure you try it before writing it off. I did, and I've never felt better.
The author is an Australian working in Beijing