Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and, more specifically, acupuncture have long been regarded as alternative therapies in the Western world. In the past few decades, however, these therapies have achieved greater popularity and more mainstream acceptance in the West. While Western medicine evolved to treat illness and disease, TCM prefers a more holistic approach that regards the body as a whole.
For many years, these Eastern and Western philosophies essentially competed with each other. Fortunately, many medical practitioners have started to realize the benefits of both systems and now combine the best of what each has to offer. Western medicine now regards many TCM practices as complementary instead of alternative therapies. Especially for dealing with chronic pain, TCM practices such as acupuncture and herbal medicine have grown quite a bit in popularity.
TCM and Western Medicine
One of the most striking differences between these approaches is how Western medical science uses specialists for different parts of the body. For instance, we have ear, nose and throat doctors; heart doctors; skin doctors; and more. In addition, Western philosophy usually diagnoses problems as either mental or physical. In other words, we separate mind and body. With TCM however, there is no such divide; treatments are not designed to heal one or the other. Instead, TCM looks at the body as a system of interrelated parts that need to be in balance to achieve wellness.
Because wellness in TCM is regarded as a body in natural balance, many Eastern medical professionals view disease as a body out of balance with nature. Consequently, its treatments aim to restore this natural balance.
Western medicine, in contrast, typically deals with external causes of disease. For example, trying to fight off a virus or some type of bacteria. While a Western doctor would usually deal with a virus directly, a practitioner of TCM looks at balancing the body’s systems in order to fend off illness.
One of the central tenets of TCM is the Chinese concept of Qi (pronounced “chee”) or the body’s vital force that flows through the body. A healthy person has a naturally flowing balance. On the other hand, Eastern medicine holds that a person suffering from disease has an an imbalance of their Qi. Therefore, TCM treatments work to restore the natural balance and rhythms of the body.
Although TCM encompasses a number of treatments such as herbal medicine, cupping therapy and massage, acupuncture is the best-known and most widely practiced component. While acupuncture may have yet to achieve widespread acceptance in the West, it has been a part of daily life in China for a very long time. As one of the oldest systems of medicine, TCM predates traditional Western medicine by a good 3,500 years.
In the United States, acupuncture reputedly got its start from a 1971 article in the New York Times in which the writer came back from China and described how doctors successfully treated his pain from back surgery with needles. Shortly thereafter, practitioners began using it to treat everything from neck and back pain to high blood pressure, headaches and much more.
In 1996, acupuncture received another boost when the FDA started classifying acupuncture needles as medical devices. As a result, it became more commonly accepted and is often prescribed to treat pain and disease.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Acupuncture works by inserting fine needles into the skin at specific points. The idea is to stimulate nerve-dense areas of the body in order to affect different bodily functions. Because each needle causes a slight injury where it’s inserted, it encourages the body to react in different ways such as increasing circulation, reducing pain or stimulating the immune system.
The needles are inserted at the body’s energy pathways, or meridians, to treat the underlying cause of the pain or infection. Because the ultimate goal of TCM is to restore the body’s natural energy flow, or the qi, increasing the flow of both blood and oxygen is acupuncture’s way of getting the body to heal itself naturally.
In practical terms, acupuncture has three effects: relieving pain, reducing inflammation and restoring the body’s homeostasis, or internal balance. If we believe that nearly every kind of disease can be traced to some type of pain or inflammation or a disturbance of its homeostasis, then it follows that acupuncture can help with all kinds of sicknesses.
What Conditions Does It Treat?
Acupuncture treats chronic pain conditions such as back and neck problems and even things like migraine headaches and nausea. It is also effective at combating conditions like depression, high blood pressure and asthma.
Recently, TCM has become more popular as a healthy alternative to pain management that bypasses the dangers of opioids. Due to the opioid addiction epidemic that we’ve experienced in the U.S. in the last couple of decades, medical professionals are grateful for any natural alternative to opiates.
Additionally, doctors have used acupuncture in order to reduce the symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment. Indeed, health professional have used it for all stages to deal with side effects such as nausea and joint pain.
What Sets TCM Apart?
What makes TCM different from traditional Western medicine is its goal of treating the root cause of a problem instead of just the symptoms. For instance, a Western doctor may prescribe medicine to treat a headache while an acupuncturist will treat the root cause of the headache to keep it from recurring.
Although critics remain skeptical of the science surrounding TCM, many people point to acupuncture’s success at treating chronic health issues as reason enough to believe in its effectiveness. Some health practitioners believe that acupuncture jump-starts the central nervous system to release natural chemicals that affect bodily systems and pain management.
What’s changed in recent years is that health care professionals now view TCM as part of a holistic approach to healing. Rather than using it in lieu of other methods, TCMs such as acupuncture appear to be most effective when used in combination with conventional Western techniques. By engaging the body’s own natural ability to heal itself, TCM can advance healing in a mostly pain-free way without debilitating side effects or addictive pain killers. In other words, TCM believes in promoting health and well-being as the byproduct of restoring balance and harmony to our lives.
About the Golden Acupuncturist
Kelley Mondesiré, DA, AP, L.Ac., practices Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Herbology. She is a Rhode Island, New York, and Florida Board Certified practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). She is a referred TCM practitioner for Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, New York, NY. She is also a graduate of The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and is trained in the field of Western Bioscience.
At her practice in Lower Manhattan, Kelley Mondesiré administers Traditional Chinese Medicine to clients from the Lower East Side, Soho, Tribeca, Battery Park and surrounding neighborhoods.