How should I choose a Chinese Medicine practitioner? How are they trained?

Training and licensure in Chinese Medicine requires three to four years (3000+ hours) of postgraduate study. In the State of Colorado, acupuncturists must be licensed and certified. To obtain a license, they are required to pass a national licensing examination consisting of multiple modules, including Theory, Point Location, Acupuncture, Western Biomedicine, and Chinese Herbology, given by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

On the other hand, medical doctors and osteopaths may practice acupuncture in Colorado without any specific training. Chiropractors need only 100 hours of theory and supervised clinical instruction to practice acupuncture.

It is strongly recommended to look for a practitioner with formal training, national certification, and an active license in the practice of Oriental Medicine. Oriental Medicine is an art and a science that takes years to master. While any licensed physician can stick needles into you, for a positive experience and results, find an acupuncturist with experience treating a similar condition (with acupuncture) to what you have. There are many styles of acupuncture, and many levels of advanced training that a practitioner may pursue. As a patient, you should feel free to ask about the training and credentials of any potential health care practitioner.

What are the differences between tinctures, patent medicines (pills), and bulk herb formulas?

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What is a patent medicine?

For most people, patent medicines are their first introduction to Chinese herbs, either through an acupuncturist or a recommendation/self purchase from health food store. They are ground up herbs in a pill and usually are somewhat inexpensive, primarily because they contain comparatively very little herb. A brief history and modern understanding is worth exploring. Much of patent medicine popularity can be attributed to its somewhat non-professional usages in the last hundred years. Their roots date back to salesmen traveling from town to town selling their latest and greatest most popular pill. Because these salesmen wanted their product to be popular (fast acting) they started mixing Western pharmaceuticals into their herbal pills. This tradition of mixing pharmaceuticals with patent medicines still exists today; therefore one must be cautious of what brands one buys. More importantly, the serious Chinese herbalists, today and in the past, almost exclusively use herbal teas for treating the majority of diseases. The four reasons why pills are not desired are summarized below:

  1. Inability to custom design a formula for the individual
  2. Substantially decreased amount of herbs per dosage
  3. Potential of unwanted ingredients added
  4. Herbs are many times not processed, and your body must assimilate the raw herbs; compare this to decocting a tea which breaks down the herbs before ingestion.

(for more see information see next question, below)

Can Chinese Medicine treat the common cold/ flu?

This kind of question or situation comes up all the time. The quick answer is, most definitely. The more involved answer is as follows.

Chinese medicine (CM) has developed an immense amount of theory as well as hundreds of formulas to treat these type of conditions. They placed great importance on this area of study because they believe that a pathogen (bacteria, virus etc) that enters into to the body, to cause a cold or flu, can cause many problems down the road if not evicted or eliminated properly and quickly. For example, if one mistreats a cold or flu or does not treat it at all one runs the risk of the pathogen going into deeper layer of the body. For example, at the beginning stages of a cold or flu, CM views the pathogen in the somewhat superficial layers of the body. It hasn’t gone into to the organs. A common situation is a cold or flu that starts in the head and then slowly moves down into the lungs and later turns into something like pneumonia. This can be prevented with CM. Chinese medicine also sees untreated/mistreated colds & flues causing problems sometimes even months later. Therefore the primary objective is to ‘release the pathogen’ as soon as possible. This concept applies to a wide range of illness including asthma, allergies, as well as colds and flues. Whenever CM views the pathogen in the outer layers it tries to evict it out. Spicy warm or spicy cold medicinals and therapies that open the pores, many times creating a sweat, are used to do this. Many western therapies such as antibiotics, echinacea/goldenseal, isatis, are said to have a cold & bitter qualities that actually prevents the pathogen from leaving, suppressing it, and allowing the pathogen to go deeper in, and possibly resurfacing at a later date when the body is weak. Sometimes this resurfacing is much harder to deal with because the pathogen is at a deeper layer. Many chronic illnesses (i.e. CFIDS & Fibromyalgia) are thought to be sometimes caused by such a situation. So the answer to the question above is yes CM treats these conditions. If caught at the early stages one can usually prevent any serious drug-out battle. If the cold or flu has already latched on, then treatment is also important to evict the pathogen which will many times cut the recovery time in half.

What are yin & yang?

Yin and yang are the foundation of Chinese medicine, which directly stems from Chinese philosophy. They are relative terms that only have meaning in a situation of comparison. For example a substance can neither be yin nor yang in and of itself, but substance A can be more yin or yang in comparison to substance B. The following chart gives some examples:

Yang Light Active Hot Exterior Rising Heaven Sun
Yin Dark Calm Cold Interior Falling Earth Moon

All phenomenon can be ascribed to yin and yang, and all phenomenon possess both a yin and yang aspect. Chinese medicine uses these terms to describe the body’s physiology, pathologies, diagnosis, and treatments. Understanding how yin and yang relate to your condition can provide great insight into your treatment.

Therefore, when one is out of balance the other also must be taken into consideration.

Note: when yin is deficient, yang is in relative excess. This not only produces symptoms of yin deficiency but of excess yang (heat). The treatment consists of nourishing yin (bringing it up), and depending on how much the yang is in excess, yang will need to be decreased. One must always weigh both aspects and gauge how much each must be treated. For example, one can get headaches because too much yang is rising up. This can occur from a yang excess (fire rising) where the yin is not truly deficient (but is only relatively deficient); or it can occur from a yin deficiency where the yin is not able to hold the yang down, and it floats up (this is yang’s nature). The treatment is to nourish the yin to help indirectly bring the yang down, and actually bring down the yang (itself).

In general one can start to think about any problem with relative yin and yang imbalances. For example, hyperthyroidism which usually produce hyperactive signs such as fast pulse, red complexion, warm body, nervousness, increased activity, increased appetite, etc. are all signs of (relative) yang excess. Hypothyroid usually produces opposite signs of hypofunction showing a predomination of yin.

Chinese medicine does get more sophisticated when it starts pairing yin and yang with other criteria, for example, one can have a kidney, spleen, lung, liver, or heart yin deficiency, as well as yang deficiencies of various organs and combinations of both.

Children and Chinese Herbs:

In many cases, children’s conditions can be most effectively treated with a combination of shonishin and Chinese herbs. Dietary modifications may also be recommended. Most of the time getting your child to take herbs is not problematic because of the small doses that is needed to be efficacious. Most conditions that Chinese herbal medicine treats in adults can also be effectively treated in children.

What about Children?

Children as young as one month old can be effectively treated with a non-needle technique called Shonishin. This Japanese method originated several hundred years ago in Southwest Japan and consists of light tapping or rubbing at specific points along the acupuncture meridians. Because children are quite sensitive and have a lot of energy, Shonishin is extremely effective in balancing a child’s energy patterns and restoring their natural state of health, without using actual needles. Shonishin works on the principle of ‘less is more’.

Some common childhood conditions that are treated with Shonishin are:

Digestive disorders Asthma Bedwetting Seizures Constipation Diarrhea Eczema Insomnia Hyperactivity Emotional distress Teething Sinusitis

What kind of conditions does Chinese Medicine treat?

Since Chinese Medicine (CM) has taken care of billions of Chinese people for over 2000 years, almost every imaginable condition can be treated within the realm of Chinese Medicine.

The World Health Organization has created a long list of conditions for which Chinese Medicine is appropriate, including:

Infections: Colds and flu, Bronchitis, Hepatitis

Internal Medicine: Hypoglycemia, Asthma, High Blood Pressure, Ulcers, Colitis, Indigestion, Hemorrhoids, Diarrhea, Constipation, Diabetes

Ears, Eyes, Nose and Throat Disorders: Ringing of ears, Earaches, Poor eyesight, Dizziness, Sinus infections, Sore throat, Hay fever

Dermatological Disorders: Eczema, Acne, Herpes

Musculoskeletal and Neurological Disorders: Arthritis, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Back pain, Bursitis, Tendonitis, Stiff neck, Bell’s Palsy, Stroke, Cerebral Palsy, Sprains

Uro-Genital and Reproductive Disorders: Impotence, Infertility, Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), Vaginitis, Irregular menses or cramping, Morning sickness, Pre and post-natal care

Mental and Emotional Disorders: Anxiety, Depression, Stress, Insomnia, S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

Furthermore, since CM is constantly evolving it is actively (mainly in China) developing tools to treat modern diseases, many times mixed with Western Medical approaches. So the question becomes what diseases does the practitioner have experience treating or does the practitioner have access to sufficient translated material, or Chinese language sources, to treat the condition. The best thing to do is to ask your prospective practitioner specifically about your condition. Certain practitioners will be better suited for certain conditions.

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What if I am taking pharmaceuticals?

This is a very important question. While acupuncture usually has little chance of interfering and creating side-effects with drugs, Chinese herbs do have this potential. This potential can be used to our advantage, for example, to reduce unwanted side-effects from drugs (i.e. chemo-therapy). Secondly, with a M.D.’s approval, if one wants to stop taking a given medication, Chinese herbs can not only reduce the side-effects of going off of less potent meds, but in many cases can be used to prevent ‘rebound-flare-ups’ and withdrawal. An example of this would be steroid therapy. Potential herb-drug interactions must be respected, and it is best to leave a two-hour gap between taking herbs and pharmaceutical drugs. While many Chinese herbs are common foods (i.e. wheat berries), we treat them as medicine, and it is important to tell your practitioner about any drugs you are taking so that we can err on the side of caution.

What is the role of Chinese herbs vs. Acupuncture?

Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine are both branches of Oriental Medicine. Each has different strengths, and the two work very well together. Acupuncture is well known for its ability to treat muskuloskeletal injuries, eliminate pain, speed healing and increase functionality of acute or chronically injured tissue and injuries. Acupuncture is also well known for stress relief and relaxation. It is less well known that Chinese herbal medicine can also help with these complaints, and that herbal medicine is especially well suited for the treatment of internal medical conditions, ranging from colds and coughs to gynecological complaints to digestive disorders. Recently the Western world has started to obtain a public awareness of this 3000+ year old tradition. However, even with the growing popularity of Chinese herbal medicine, it is important that Chinese herbs be prescribed by a trained and licensed Chinese medicine practitioner.

Is there anything I should know before I try acupuncture?

Acupuncture is suitable for almost everyone, including children and the elderly.

However, you should not receive acupuncture on an empty stomach, when intoxicated, or if unusually weak and debilitated.

Don’t scrape or brush the coating off your tongue, and avoid eating or drinking things that could change the color of your tongue (coffee, juice, gum) for a couple of hours before your session.

Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes.

Bring a list of the current medications and supplements you are taking.

Come 15 minutes early to complete your patient information and health history forms.

How many treatments will I need?

The number of treatments depends upon the severity and duration of your complaint, and your own specific goals for health. For acute symptoms, one or two treatments may be enough, while chronic or degenerative conditions may take 5-10 or even more treatments to see significant progress. To help get the most out of your treatments, your acupuncturist may recommend dietary changes, relaxation techniques, self-massage or Chinese herbal medicine, all of which can help increase the efficacy of acupuncture and maintain your health between treatments. Even after the acute situation which brings them to acupuncture has resolved, many people choose to continue treatment to address other less severe imbalances and improve overall health.

What can I expect on my first visit?

Your first consultation may be longer than subsequent sessions. Your practitioner needs to assess your general state of health, identify the underlying pattern(s) of disharmony related to your current issues, and evaluate your constitutional condition in order to give you the most effective treatment.

You will be asked about your current symptoms and what treatment you have received so far, your medical history and that of your close family, your diet, digestive system, sleeping patterns and emotional state.

To assist in the diagnosis, your practitioner will feel your pulses on both wrists, noting their quality, rhythm and strength. The shape, color and coating of your tongue also gives insight into your physical health. These findings are combined with any modern Western tests and a diagnosis is achieved. Since the patient is usually not familiar with Chinese medical terminology, the diagnosis is explained in a manner that the patient can understand in relation to his/her own body. From the diagnosis, a suitable treatment plan is decided upon. This most likely will include a customized herbal formula, acupuncture treatment, and possibly other Chinese medical modalities or dietary or supplement recommendations.

For your visit, loose, comfortable clothing is appropriate. You should be aware that your acupuncturist may need to access points on your torso as well as on your arms and legs. Stimulation of specific areas on or beneath the skin affects the functioning of certain organs in the body. However, those areas may not be close to the part of the body where the problem is experienced. For example, if you suffer from headaches, needles may be inserted in your foot or hand.

There are around 500 acupuncture points on the body, from which your acupuncturist will use a selection of perhaps ten or twelve of these for each treatment. It is common that during a course of treatments, different points will be selected as your condition changes. Usually acupuncture is done with you lying comfortably on a treatment table, but sometimes it is more appropriate to have you sitting. In some cases, especially for pain problems, you will be asked to move the affected part of the body while treatment is applied to another area (that is related to the pain by meridian connections).

Acupuncture may be supplemented with moxa, a smoldering herb called mugwort, which is used to warm acupuncture points to encourage the body’s energy to flow smoothly.

Does acupuncture hurt? Is it safe?

Acupuncture consists of gentle insertion and stimulation of thin, flexible, disposable, sterile needles at strategic points near the surface of the body. The needles might elicit a feeling of heaviness, an ache, warmth or a feeling of energy moving throughout the body. Most people’s fear comes from experience with the much larger and more painful hypodermic needles used for injections. While also sterile and disposable, acupuncture needles are considerably thinner and not designed for injections. When the mental hurdles are removed, most people find acupuncture to be therapeutic and quite relaxing.

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