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The Healing Qi

Jun 21

Acupuncture Relieves Pain In Emergency Room Patients

This is HUGE: World’s largest randomized controlled trial of acupuncture in emergency departments finds it is a safe and effective alternative to pain-relieving drugs……/2017/…/170618103517.htm

Apr 14

The Acupuncturist and the Skeptic

The following conversation is redacted from a debate on an online forum from the Atlantic Magazine:

There are numerous studies pointing to the effectiveness of Acupuncture for a wide variety of conditions. The Mayo Clinic reported one such study done for Fibromylagia. The researchers concluded:

“This study paradigm allows for controlled and blinded clinical trials of acupuncture. We found that acupuncture significantly improved symptoms of fibromyalgia. Symptomatic improvement was not restricted to pain relief and was most significant for fatigue and anxiety.”

I personally have seen patients with terrible pain respond to Acupuncture when all other options have failed them.

Further, there are numerous studies done in China, Europe, Korea and Japan that have not been translated into English. Many of these studies are rigorous enough to meet western standards of research. Unfortunately, people are not made aware of these studies until they are translated.

We already KNOW Acupuncture works, we just have not been able to come up with an integrated theory of how it works, because we have not developed an energetic, physics based paradigm of the body yet.

Anyone who looks at the studies and contends Acupuncture does not work better than the placebo has not done their homework and is just ignorant, biased or worse. Yes, let me amend that statement: I know Acupuncture works. Millions of South East Asians know Acupuncture works as do thousands of Americans. Hundreds of thousands of physicians worldwide know Acupuncture works. But obviously there are many people who do not know Acupuncture works.

But actually even medical science does know Acupuncture works. For instance in the Ernt et al., Pain 2011, study you mentioned, there was a conclusion you left out:

“Unanimously positive conclusions from more than one high-quality systematic review existed only for neck pain”

So even from this study alone we can say, from a perspective of medical science, that Acupuncture works for neck pain. And if it works for neck pain, how can you say it does not work? Obviously it is beating the placebo (and the placebo itself, as we know, works).

Or how can you argue with a University of Maryland study for osteoarthritis of the knee published on Annals of Internal Medicine in 2004…their conclusion:

“Acupuncture seems to provide improvement in function and pain relief as an adjunctive therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee when compared with credible sham acupuncture and education control groups.”

There are many researchers working on the difficulties of devising methodologies for studying Acupuncture.

I don’t think an energetic paradigm needs to supplant a biological/biochemical paradigm, I would think of a better paradigm as integral. An integral paradigm would include the energetic realities of the body while also honoring the physiological. They both exist.

Are implying that rationality is the exclusive domain of “medical science.” I am sure there are plenty of rational conclusions you come to everyday that are warranted but have not been verified with the double blinded placebo controlled study.

The main problem in this whole debate is the tool of measurement: basic science. Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine will never truly be able to be measured via gold standard randomized controlled trials because we treat people individually based on their constitution. For example, two women with infertility will generally be treated completely differently. So clinically effective treatment (circular peg) cannot be shoved into a RCT (square hole). Whole systems research methods are developing but it will take many many years for this method of evaluation to be accepted by the medical/scientific field.

Believe me, it’s beyond frustrating to not be able to simply measure the effect of acupuncture as effectively as giving a pill. And as I said, there is a movement to create study design that takes into account individualized treatment while decreasing confounding variables. I am as skeptical as they come and appreciate and respect scientific evaluation hence my involvement in acupuncture research. There is a lot of bad research out there (so I’m not going to argue about specific studies)….often because the study design does not fit the therapy. I hope we are soon able to use methodology that produces sound results that can be trusted because after 10 years of practicing Chinese Med,  I cannot deny the clinical effectiveness of acupuncture and want to prove it.

“There is as much evidence for the existence of Qi as there is for the existence of a soul or the validity of the concept of the 4 humours.”

And yet, some things are not yet measurable by what you call science. Different epistemologies existed in different times, this doesn’t make
different ways of knowing obsolete.

Just because something has not been deduced by the scientific method doesn’t mean it is not warranted knowledge. I believe you can presume certain things exist without the help of the scientific method, from direct experience, but I still understand people who consider the “science” as only way of ascertaining the “truth.”

I am not trying to convince you of anything, just helping you to understand what the Chinese mean when they use the word Qi. It is a qualitative phenomena.

I would hesitate before using words like “quakery” which often belie someone too quick to use a loaded catch-phrase,  and unwilling to use sustained disciplined thought to criticize the history, methods and philosophy of science in the necessary mental attitude of skepticism, that most healthy, rational scientists espouse.

Have you used sustained disciplined thought to analyze the results of the research they have done over the years?

Do you think science has one method? I don’t think that is true. Maybe the better word is warranted knowledge. And Acupuncture is warranted. The criteria for evidence in “evidence based medicine” is often too narrow as we have said.

“There is as much evidence for the existance of Qi as there is for the existance of a soul or the validity of the concept of the 4 humours.”

And yet, some things are not yet measurable by what you call science. Different epistemologies existed in different times, this doesn’t make different ways of knowing obsolete.

Just because something has not been deduced by the scientific method doesn’t mean it is not warranted knowledge. I believe you can presume certain things exist without the help of the scientific method, from direct experience, but I still understand people who consider the “science” as only way of ascertaining the “truth.”

I am not trying to convince you of anything, just helping you to understand what the Chinese mean when they use the word Qi. It is a qualitative phenomena.

“Your talk of EM fields and energetics is just a clever way of masking meridians and qi in western sounding terms to make it more palatable for your western audience– there’s no basis in science for any of it.”

I am not sure why you think EM fields are not applicable to the concept of qi and Acupuncture.

Maybe it would helpful to think of Chinese medicine as qualitative and phenomenological rather than as “scientific”, a word you seem to use to mean quantifiable, just because qi is not measurable within your narrow frame of reference, doesn’t mean what the Chinese call Qi does not exist. The Chinese concept of Qi is a qualitative idea that is very obvious. It is an integral concept. It is a very practical idea.

In an acupuncture study, doing acupuncture once a week is often not enough, you cannot apply the methodology of a pharmacological study to an acupuncture study.  I have been to China 8 times and worked with Chinese physicians in hospitals there and the doctors there know you need to do acupuncture typically 3 times a week over a sustained period of time to get lasting results. We know, through MRI research that there are specific biological correlates after only one Acupuncture treatment that are not explainable with sham Acupuncture or even superficial needling, but still, we are seeking lasting results.

In the same way that you wouldn’t set up pharmacological study and give the medicine once a week, Acupuncture trials often have a frequency issue.  Further, most clinical trials on drugs just want to establish the physiological effect of the drug. For instance, researchers want to know that it controls blood pressure or reduces pain more than the placebo, they are not looking at whether the drug has a curative or lasting effect after the drug has been stopped. They don’t judge the efficacy of the drug only if the patient is cured.

Maybe pain studies for acupuncture need to increase the frequency to mimic drug use, give acupuncture every other day for 3 months. So frequency is an issue.

You didn’t address the research I mentioned because that study, clinically proving acupuncture was effective for osteoarthritic pain of the knee, did not reveal rational knowledge? If you can honestly look at that study, the largest ever of its kind, a phase 3 trial, and find some way to denounce it, then I would be curious to assess your reasoning.

You mentioned the Mayo Clinic’s study in fibromyalgia however, those doctors did only 6 treatments, with electro-stimulation and they found evidence of pain reduction beyond the placebo. The physiological changes associated with acupuncture have been established.

Just because electro-stimluation was added doesn’t mean it wasn’t acupuncture. Plus, they only did 6 treatments, which would be like giving a drug 6 times and expecting a chronic condition to be cured, it’s not going to happen.

So the systemic reviews you mention may be indications that the studies are not being designed correctly, often the doctors doing the treatment are not experts, and researchers are applying methods that are more useful for pharmacological studies…the results of acupuncture do largely depend on a host of factors.

As for your comment that I don’t understand the placebo, I have spent 15 years thinking about the implications of the placebo effect. Why would believing something is going to lower your blood pressure actually help lower it? It is because the mind can actually exert physiological changes in the body? Yes.

As for not knowing where to start about my comment on needing an integral approach to the human body that includes energetic models and biological models. The energetic model would  include the effects of electromagnetic fields on the human organism. We know the hearts EM field is 1000x stronger than the brains and as emotions change, the EM field of the heart changes, and exerts a measurable effect on the brain….described by a physics term: entrainment. There are plenty of ways that the energetic model can interface with the biological model. You might find the work of the HeartMath Institute enlightening.

Apr 12

Acupuncture Improves Heart Function

Acupuncture improves heart functionNovember 14, 2002. ANAHEIM, Calif.

American Heart Association:

Acupuncture Improves Heart Function And Inhibits Sympathetic Activation During Mental Stress in Advanced Heart Failure Patients…

Acupuncture improved the health prospects of individuals with severe heart failure, according to a unique study reported today at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2001 conference. Acupuncture is the practice of piercing the skin with needles at specific points to treat illness or relieve pain. In this study Acupuncture dramatically reduced sympathetic nerve activity among heart failure patients. The sympathetic nervous system regulates involuntary movements such as heartbeat and blood pressure. Over-activation of sympathetic nerves is common in heart failure patients and associated with a poor prognosis because it forces the weakened heart to work harder and predisposes the heart to potentially lethal heart rhythms.

“There is an ever-increasing interest in alternative medicine. But until now, no one had looked at acupuncture’s effect on the very sickest heart failure patients. Our research represents a promising first step”, says lead author Holly R. Middlekauff, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine. Advanced heart failure patients often have two or three times more sympathetic nerve activity than normal individuals,” she says.

“It has been shown that the greater this activity is, the worse the outlook for the patient, so reducing it could be crucial. Sympathetic nerve activation was significantly reduced in the acupuncture group,” she says. “in our clinical experience, acupuncture has been used successfully and with long-range results in improving hypertension, and it also is useful in lowering sympathetic nerve activity.”

Animal studies completed in recent years demonstrate that acupuncture works very well in the extreme cases of sympathetic nerve increases, also known as stress, but the factors that increase stress and nerve elevation are complex and are being researched, Middlekauff notes.

Other doctors and researches who demonstrated that Acupuncture Improves Heart Function:

Jun Liang Yu; Kakit Hui, M.D.; Michele Hamilton, M.D.; Gregg Fonarow, M.D.; Jaime Moriguchi, M.D.; and Antoine Hage, M.D.

To see the article on pubmed click here:

And to obtain a PDF of the article as originally published in the Journal of Cardiac Failure Vol. 8 No. 6 2002, click here:

Jan 12

Sweeping the mountain of nerves

sweeping the mountain of nervesFor many of us, it is time, simply time, to end the petty stresses of our lives. Can we truly commit to the awareness that happiness is eternally free from our circumstances? Are many or most of our problems “first world” problems? How many of us have visited a “third world” nation and noticed that people seem much happier there, less attached to fame, wealth and the future? Of course suffering can exist in anyone’s mind, in any location on earth…and our compassion to our own suffering and the suffering of others gives rise to wisdom.

How can we sweep the mountain of nerves daily and find inner peace…to realize right here and now that this present moment is the greatest gift and that things don’t always work out in time…but in the awareness in which time arises?

I like to breathe and see how soft and relaxed my breath can become…try ten deep, soft breaths right now…your mind will relax.

One friend loves to grab the binoculars and set out to find unique birds right there in his own neighborhood…tiny miracles rarely seen or noticed.

What simple thing or act can you do to bring you simple and present peace today?

Perhaps this year we could all take more time to nourish ourselves. We offer massage and acupuncture sessions at our clinic, not only to help people get rid of pain or other symptoms, but to find that through nourishing the body, they are nourishing the mind. And that when the body and mind are deeply relaxed, our innate peace and joy can arise like a clear mountain stream.

Aug 11

Acupuncture for Acute Pain

acupuncture for acute pain in ashevilleMany studies have focused on using acupuncture to treat chronic pain, but a recent study sheds light on the effectiveness of acupuncture for acute pain. In fact, patients responded faster and better to acupuncture than to intravenous morphine! Over 300 people were recruited for the study, and it is in press to be published in the prestigious American Journal of Emergency Medicine, August edition.

We treat acute pain very successfully and efficiently here at our Asheville Clinic. If you know anyone in acute pain, let them know that acupuncture could help. You can also show this medical study to your doctor and helpd educate people about the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of acute pain.

To see the abstract of the study, click here:

Dec 2

Acupuncture Actually Works for Neck Pain, Study Says | TIME

People who practiced acupuncture or the Alexander Technique had greater pain reductions than those who got standard treatment

Source: Acupuncture Actually Works for Neck Pain, Study Says | TIME

Aug 21

Acupuncture Research

acupuncture researchWestern medicine prides itself on being scientific and evidence based, though some research suggests that more than 80% of all western medical procedures are not based on research.

The gold standard for proof in western medicine is the systematic review or meta-analysis, which analyzes all the current research throwing out badly designed studies to come up with a more accurate picture of a therapy’s effectiveness.

Listed below are some of the more important studies done on acupuncture, including the largest meta analysis to date on the effectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain. The verdict? Acupuncture beats the placebo for chronic pain.

Random Controlled Trials (RCTs) and Systematic Reviews (meta-analyses)

Research demonstrating acupuncture’s effectiveness for specific conditions:

1. Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain: Individual patient data meta-analysis. ARCHIVES OF INTERNAL MEDICINE. 2012;172(19):1444.

2. MacPherson H, Vertosick E, Lewith G, et al. Influence of Control Group on Effect Size in Trials of Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: A Secondary Analysis of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis. Tu Y-K, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(4):e93739. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093739.

3. Witt CMB. Efficacy, effectiveness, safety and costs of acupuncture for chronic pain – results of a large research initiative. Acupuncture in Medicine. Dec2006 Supplement;24:33-39.
Research demonstrating problems with “sham” acupuncture

4. Haake M, Müller H-H, Schade-Brittinger C, et al. GERAC German Acupuncture Trials for chronic low back pain: randomized, multicenter, blinded, parallel-group trial with 3 groups. Archives Of Internal Medicine. 2007;167(17):1892-1898.

5. Jena S, Witt CM, Brinkhaus B, Wegscheider K, Willich SN. ARC Acupuncture in patients with headache. Cephalalgia: An International Journal Of Headache. 2008;28(9):969-979. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2982.2008.01640.x.

6. Witt C, Brinkhaus B, Jena S, et al. ART Acupuncture in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomised trial. LANCET. 2005;366(9480):136.

Acupuncture Research on Mechanism of Action

1. Edwards E, Louis Belard J, Glowa J, Khalsa P, Weber W, Huntley K. DoD–NCCAM/NIH Workshop on Acupuncture for Treatment of Acute Pain. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2013;19(3):266-279. doi:10.1089/acm.2012.9229.dod.

2. Huang W, Pach D, Napadow V, et al. Characterizing acupuncture stimuli using brain imaging with FMRI–a systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature. Plos One. 2012;7(4):e32960-e32960. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032960.

3. Langevin HM, Wayne PM, Macpherson H, et al. Paradoxes in acupuncture research: strategies for moving forward. Evidence-Based Complementary And Alternative Medicine: Ecam. 2011;2011. doi:10.1155/2011/180805.

4. Napadow V, Ahn A, Longhurst J, et al. The Status and Future of Acupuncture Mechanism Research. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2008;14(7):861-869. doi:10.1089/acm.2008.SAR-3.

5. Dhond RP, Kettner N, Napadow V. Neuroimaging acupuncture effects in the human brain. J Altern Complement Med. 2007;13(6):603-616. doi:10.1089/acm.2007.7040.

6. Hui KKS, Liu J, Marina O, et al. The integrated response of the human cerebro-cerebellar and limbic systems to acupuncture stimulation at ST 36 as evidenced by fMRI. Neuroimage. 2005;27(3):479-496.

7. Langevin HM, Churchill DL, Cipolla MJ. Mechanical signaling through connective tissue: a mechanism for the therapeutic effect of acupuncture. FASEB Journal: Official Publication Of The Federation Of American Societies For Experimental Biology. 2001;15(12):2275-2282.

May 5

Acupuncture and Insomnia

acupuncture and insomniaInsomnia and Sleep problems: Chinese and western medical approaches

By Tai Lahans DOM

Conventional medicine and Insomnia

From a conventional medical point of view, there are two types and varying depths of sleep. NREM ( non-rapid eye movement ) sleep accounts for about 75% of sleep time. It is the initial phase of sleep characterized by slow EEG waves ( brain waves ), lowered respiratory and heart rates and lowered muscle tone. REM ( rapid eye movement ) sleep occupies the remainder of sleep time. The EEG waves are low voltage but fast activity, and occur 5 – 6 times during a normal night’s sleep. Rate and depth of respiration are increased but muscle tone is depressed even lower than in NREM sleep. REM always follow NREM sleep and ends each sleep cycle.

Norepinephrine pathways in the brainstem are implicated in REM sleep. Serotonergic pathways are implicated in NREM sleep. Most dreaming occurs during REM. Most nightmares and sleep walking and talking occur in NREM stages 3 and 4. Interruption of REM sleep produces hyperactivity and emotionally labile behavior. This is why sleep deprivation is a torture technique in order to gain information.

Western medicine divides sleep disorders into several different categories:

  • initial insomnia – cannot fall asleep
  • early morning waking – wakes several hours before the usual time
  • inverted sleep pattern – sleep during the day and awake at night, common in the elderly
  • primary insomnia – longstanding insomnia with an apparent relationship to a somatic or psychic event
  • secondary insomnia – due to acquired pain, anxiety and depression

Delta sleep is a deeper level of REM during which growth hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland. This is the only time this occurs in adults, and most tissue repair happens during this time. Lack of delta sleep can lead to chronic illness due to to toxicity and lack of rehabilitation of normal tissue function.

Western treatment for insomnia is based on sedatives, hypnotics, minor tranquilizers, and anxiolytics depending on the diagnosis and presentation of the patient. Many have side effects like symptoms akin to a hang-over and some are addicting.

Chinese medicine and Insomnia

In Chinese medicine insomnia is usually divided into deficiency and excess type. Deficiency type relates to yin and blood deficiencies and places emphasis on the heart, spleen, liver and kidney. Excess relates to food stagnation and phlegm and phlegm heat. Therefore, emphasis is placed on the middle burner and especially the gallbladder.

The wei qi ( a form of protective qi or immunity ) circulates externally 12 times during the daytime and internally 12 times during the night. This allows for deeper organ level detoxification at night. It probably is akin to the fact that growth hormone is secreted at night to allow for tissue repair. When sleep is poor then certain hormonal levels are interrupted and disturbed. For example, adrenal function is disturbed when sleep is disturbed over a period of time. Also, blood sugar issues affect sleep…if a person drinks to much alcohol or too much sugar before bed, they often wake up between 1-4am. This is because their body has taken up all the blood sugar with insulin, and then their blood sugar drops while they are asleep causing their adrenal cortex to release adreanline and cortisol.

There are four main types of insomnia Chinese medicine considers:

  • too much thinking or cogitating
  • too much activity
  • too much food
  • too much anger

These are called “ the four toos “ in China.

Treatment involves accurate diagnosis and then the use of primarily herbal medicine:

  • In the too much thinking realm which is a deficiency type of insomnia the main treatment is called Gui Pi Tang which nourishes the heart and spleen and blood.
  • In the yin deficiency realm the treatment is Tian Wang Bu Xin Tang
  • In the phlegm realm treatment is Wen Dan Tang
  • In the food stasis realm treatment is with Bao He Wan
  • In the too much anger realm acupuncture treatment is the main intervention, along with modified Xiao Yao San and Suan Zao Ren Tang

Lifestyle changes are specific for each type. But some commonalities include:

  1. Have a nighttime routine that begins two hours before bed and helps you to begin to get quiet. Turn off many of the lights in the house. Start putting your house to bed.
  1. Cool down your home. At night your core temperature falls and your extremities may get slightly warmer. This is natural. Turn off the heat or at least turn it down to 50*.
  1. Take the television out of the bedroom. Your bedroom is for sleeping and quiet time.
  1. Do not eat late at night. Food that is in your stomach at bedtime will generally sit there until your get up. This is unhealthy and bad for your digestion and can impede sleep.
  1. Meditating daily helps sleep at night. It allows your mind to train itself to be quiet.
  1. Try not to sleep during the daytime. If you need to, nap for only one half hour in the early afternoon.
  1. Exercise will help sleep. The human body is an animal and it loves routines. Having an exercise routine, especially in the earlier part of the day, is part of a habit that will enable you to sleep better partially because it is a habit ( a good one ), and partially because it discharges stress and negative emotions that may keep you awake.

When it comes to diet some traditions say that we should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. In other words, dinner should be our smallest and lightest meal. Of course, we do it the opposite. Try and switch your eating routine to one that puts you in bed with only a light supper of easy to digest foods in your digestive tract.

There are many nutritional supplements that are often used to help with sleep, and it is best to consult an expert to find out which is best suited to your constitution:

  • Valerian
  • Kava kava
  • Chamomile
  • Passion flower
  • Melatonin
  • Vitamin B6
  • Tryptophan

Almost all patients with restless leg disorder have nocturnal myoclonus. These conditions can impede sleep and should be diagnosed by a medical practitioner. Acupuncture can help myoclonus or restless leg syndrome.

Acupuncture and Insomnia

Acupuncture has been shown to improve sleep and to help with insomnia. Acupuncture has been used for insomnia and sleep disorders in China for thousands of years. From a biochemical perspective acupuncture stimulates the brain to release opioid like chemicals that relax a person without side effects. Acupuncture can also help a person reduce stress, balance blood sugar and return to balance.

To learn more about acupuncture for insomnia or sleep issues call (828) 254-4405

Mar 4

Acupuncture as Systems Theory

acupuncture as systems theoryYou cannot design anything without understanding the forces that flow through the design. Imagine designing a house without understanding how water flows through it, or electricity, or the force of gravity via mass across structure.

Still in homes, and in home design and repair we have plumbers, electricians, contractors etc., each trained in their respective jobs, each a specialist….while in many cases, little thought is given to what we might call whole systems architecture. Also, rarely do architects think about a human as a flow system of perceptions and senses and design according to flows and movements of light, smell of lavender at the south facing window, touch of reclaimed barn wood and stone.

The same is typically true of automotive design. As an example, here is what the Armory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute had to say about whole systems thought as applied to automobiles:

“Not only does systems thinking point the way to solutions to particular resource problems, but it also reveals interconnections between problems, which often permits one solution to be leveraged to create many more. Take cars, for example. Cars are extremely complicated, so automotive engineers and designers specialize. Their job is to make a given component or subsystem the best it can be. This is how the modern automobile has evolved, through an incremental process of small improvements to individual components, without much change to the overall concept. The trouble is, optimizing isolated parts often “pessimizes” the whole: integration and synergy are lost; complexity, oversizing, and inefficiency abound. What’s lacking is a sense of the big picture, the whole system. Whole-system design means optimizing not just parts but the entire system (in this case the car). Naturally, this is more difficult at first. It takes ingenuity, intuition, and teamwork. Everything must be considered simultaneously and teased apart to reveal mutually helpful interactions.”

And yet, we still are a world of specialists that rarely collaborate to get a systems perspective. Why? Perhaps because a systems perspective often leads to a style of thought that considers the benefits to all life everywhere when creating any new invention or design. If a win-win solution for all of life cannot be had, a systems scientist might reconsider the design of the solution.

Acupuncture as Systems Theory

A person is not a gadget, not a machine, not a bag of biochemicals, and yet the reductionist stance of western medicine prevails. A most obvious case of specialization over systems thought occurs in medicine. Because the body is biochemically complex, patients are often referred from specialist to specialist, each an expert in his or her domain: cardiology, nephrology, gastroenterology etc. And most of those doctors do not think in terms of systems. Because a person is embedded in a network of relationships: community, town, nation, world, galaxy etc., and because their bodymind is composed of relationships among cells, organs, meridians etc., highly specialized medicine often fails people.

Acupuncture evolved in a culture of thought that emphasized systems — a human is embedded in a culture, which is embedded in nature, embedded in a world, embedded in a cosmos.

Thinking of humans as whole systems, within larger whole systems, allows more ecological understanding and solution oriented thought in healthcare. As practitioners of Chinese medicine, we are concerned with the health of people in every area of their lives, and we also realize that the health of the planet is the health of a person because we are literally the earth expressed in the unique form we call human. As the ecological and systems thought of East Asian Medicine gains traction in the west, we can look forward to a time when the systems thought of Chinese medicine does not compete with western medicine, but rather completes it.

Feb 20

The Science of Chinese Medicine

science of chinese medicineBy James Whittle M.S., L.Ac.


In the February 2014 issue of Journal of Chinese medicine (number 204), Peter Eckman M.D., physician and acupuncturist, presented a short article titled “Traditional Chinese Medicine – Science or Pseudoscience? A Response to Paul Unschuld” in which he questions Paul Unschuld’s supposed belief that Chinese medicine and acupuncture are pseudoscientific pursuits that need validation by biomedical science. Other Chinese medicine scholars have argued that Unschuld is equally skeptical of both biomedicine and Chinese medicine. Whatever Unschuld believes personally is not as concerning as the general tendency in the west to see biomedicine as the only legitimate medical science and thus the only legitimate path to medical knowlwedge.

Eckman raises good questions, and calls for acupuncturists to determine what methods of research are most appropriate to Chinese medicine. He touches upon the distinction between Western science and Eastern science by stating, “Many authors before me have pointed out that Western science is analytical, quantitative and deductive, whereas Eastern science is synthetic, qualitative and inductive.” In my experience, many acupuncturists do not consider Chinese medicine a science because they have not read or been introduced to the authors who have paved the way of apprehending why it should be considered as such. Additionally, many leaders in the field of Chinese medicine feel pressured to reduce Chinese medical thoughts and concepts to western ideas to make them acceptable. An example is reducing the idea of qi to the oxygen molecule. By comprehensively understanding why a modern rational person would consider Chinese medicine a science and not a pseudoscience or an example of pre-scientific thought, we are more able to guide the future of our medicine and propose intelligent ways to make it grow through considered research. Eckman cites Manfred Porkert as a source for understanding the differences between Western and Eastern science, as no other author has done more to clarify the differences in the two modes of thought than Porkert. In this short piece I wish to redact and explain one of Porkert’s central arguments, a deep understanding of which, could lend to a clear understanding of why Chinese medicine is indeed a science. Hopefully the argument will be useful to practitioners and students in their continued debate over the validity and practice of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, and its place within the dominant paradigm of biomedicine. As Dr. Nguyen Van Nghi used to say, “Chinese medicine does not compete with western medicine, it completes it.”

Introduction to the argument

In 1977, Dr. Manfred Porkert, the eminent sinologist and scholar-practitioner of Chinese medicine, wrote an article published in the journal Eastern Horizon titled: “Chinese medicine: A Science in its own Right.” The core argument of this piece, when fully understood gives practitioners an incredibly solid footing from which to understand their profession in terms of a mature science. In light of the fact that science is considered the hallmark of knowledge in many cultures, it makes sense to understand if Chinese medicine is truly a science in its own right, or if the biomedical trials of western medicine are needed to validate its practice. After reflecting on Porkert’s work for many years, I am convinced that with a deep understanding of the issues presented, practitioners can make a strong case to any intelligent and rational person anywhere, that Chinese medicine deserves deep respect and is more than empirically interesting or a grab bag of archaic techniques. Chinese medicine is a mature science and demonstrates all the criteria necessary to qualify it as such.

How Do We Define Science?

Disagreements about how we define science and distinguish it from other pursuits, such as philosophy, gets us right to the crux of the issue at hand.

The Oxford etymological dictionary gives this origin of the word science:

“mid-14c., “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information;” also “assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty,” from Old French science “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge” (12c.), from Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens (genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, to split” (cf. Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old English sceadan “to divide, separate”

For most people, the common understanding of science is something that is universally true, and the word truth often gets confused with the word science. Science should be understood as a human activity and attempt to arrive at warranted knowledge, or approximations of truth. What was considered true to one generation, changes as human beings discover more about the universe, or as anomalous facts collect and require new theories. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Kuhn)

As the history of science and the philosophy of science shows, science is often riddled with cultural assumptions, agreements and methods, so much so that Goldstein and Goldstein point out in their book, How We Know, that “facts are theory laden.” The Goldsteins give the example of mass. In order for us to weigh a rock, we must agree on certain definitions and measurements, and our facts proceed from these. Without the agreement about the definition of mass, without agreeing to a shared set of terms, we would have no science.

In his book, The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould, the eminent paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science remarked:

“Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural.”

Though the very word science can conjure many things to many people, in general we use it to imply a way of obtaining approximate truth, universally warranted knowledge that extends across cultures, ideologies and belief systems. But we are also aware that certain agreements and beliefs are embedded in any science.

So in a general way science means an activity and mode of thought that leads to knowing with certainty, but it often gets confused with a method of analysis, called by Porkert “causal analysis”, and a specific mode of cognizance that is reductive in method. When we use the word science we mean to separate it from a specific mode of cognizance, and use it in the more general sense of universal approximate knowledge, or more precisely “warranted knowledge.” (J. Linn Mackey)

If you look in any high school science textbook in America, it will tell you that science in practice is distinguished by the scientific method. Unfortunately, science often gets confused with “the scientific method.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as, “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

But in real life some of the greatest discoveries in science have come from dreams or other unorthodox methods of reflection or intuition. For instance, Friedrich August Kekule discovered the Benzene ring structure after a dream of a snake swallowing its tail. Meaning that the scientific method as it applies to warranted knowledge is only another approximation and not the only way of apprehending knowledge. Dreams and revelations from meditations on them, have served as ways of receiving crucial insights that later are revealed as warranted.

Additionally, there is nothing in the scientific method that identifies the mode of thought of science as causally analytic, reductive or quantitative. The Eastern science of Chinese medicine follows the scientific method as defined by the Oxford dictionary, in that it applies systematic observation, measurement and experiment…thereby arriving at the classical hypotheses of Chinese medicine: yin-yang and five phase theories.

So Western science and Eastern science are completely different modes of cognizance, but they are equally valid as sciences because they meet the core criteria that establishes them as universal ways of knowing as we will see below.

Eastern V Western Science: Two Modes of Cognizance

Many people and most scientists, will tell you that science is universal, that it provides knowledge available to all, and that therefore we should not speak in terms of Western versus Eastern science. What they don’t understand is that when we use these terms, Western and Eastern, we are describing different ways of seeing, different methods of thought and modes of cognizance only.

When we assume that Western science is the only true science, we make a fundamental mistake in confusing the methods, procedures and thought processes of that science with the criteria which establishes what a true science consists of. A science is not merely the methods it uses to acquire knowledge, it is based on specific criteria that distinguish it from other ways of knowing.

One of my mentors, Dr. Nguyen Van Nghi used to say “Chinese medicine does not compete with Western medicine, it completes it.”

Porkert makes clear in his writings that Eastern science is qualitative and he characterizes the mode of thought of Chinese medicine as inductively synthetic. While Western science is by and large quantitative and causally analytic. Whereas Chinese medicine looks to the present moment to see qualities and patterns as they present in the now, Western medicine looks for causes in the past. And the causes that western medicine seeks to find are material causes of increasingly microscopic origin. For instance, the search for causes goes to the cell, or molecule, all the way to do the DNA, as in the search for the genetic origins of disease.

So when we say western science, we mean a mode of thought that is focused on matter, is causally analytic and thereby reductive. In western science as applied to human beings, people are reduced to an effect, with a cause in the past, as in genetics.

Just because Chinese medicine uses a different mode of cognizance does not mean it is not a science in its’ own right. As established, modes of cognizance, are methods of thought, and Eastern science uses a different way of thought than Western science. In fact, Eastern thought does not disclude Western science, it includes it but also transcends it, while Western science necessarily discludes Eastern science, because it’s mode of cognizance is based on reduction and it must disclude any extraneous phenomenon not associated with the immediate concerned area of focus. As an example, to microscopically observe a part of the body, all other parts and functions of the body must be temporarily excluded from the observer’s focus, even though those other phenomena exist simultaneously. Chinese medicine takes the macro view, and synthesizes simultaneous phenomena to arrive at a gestalt or pattern. And these images, or patterns are universal.

The core of Porkert’s argument

Porkert makes clear that we must distinguish first between scientific criteria and scientific methods. Methods will differ depending on the branch of science. For instance, astronomers do not use the double-blinded placebo controlled study as a method, but astronomy is a science because it is based on the criteria that qualify it as a science. The criteria necessary to claim a way of knowing a science are:

1. Positive experience.

This would be the empirical part of the story. One of the most obvious facts about Chinese medicine is that it begins with very astute and precise observations of the human being. One could call this observation, but you have to be careful with that word. Porkert does not say objective here. When you do not separate mind and body, how can you separate subjective and objective? Still we experience things that are universal and understandable in terms of universality.

2. Univocality of statements.

For instance we all agree on what red means and signifies. When we say yin, yang or fire in Chinese medicine, we understand what each term means…and that heat is distinct from cold etc. Each word specifically points to specific phenomena and not other phenomena. Porkert says: “Univocality of statements denotes that in a given context every single statement must only be employed and accepted with one single, precisely defined meaning, to the exclusion of all others, with even slightly similar meanings. This criterion distinguishes ‘scientific’ from ‘common’ and even from ‘philosophical’ statements which, as a rule, can be understood or interpreted in more than one way.”

3. Stringent rational integration (systematization) of empirical data.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, this is exactly what Chinese physicians have done by observing patterns in human beings and delineating how those patterns change through time. Using the positive experience or their empirical observations, they used univocal statements, like “spleen qi deficiency” to recognize patterns and differentiate them. And thus an understanding of pattern differentiation is the rational systematization of empirical data at the core of Eastern science.

Porkert states: “It should also be noted that different from these essential criteria are a number of other criteria such as notably the causality nexus, controlled experiment and quantification of data. These constitute accidental criteria whose application is limited to some specific disciplines or fields of research only.”

In other words, depending on the branch of science there might be other criteria associated with it, but what establishes a science as legitimate are the core and principle criteria stated above, which Chinese medicine conforms to.

Putting reduction in its place

Porkert also makes clear that one of the methods of Western science, measurement and the metric system, implies a reductive mode of cognizance, because you cannot measure a human being without reducing that human being to the system of measurements. It is a mistake however to reduce humans to numbers solely, as it is clear that the human phenomenon is more than the sum of the parts that make humans up. The metric system is useful but only part of the mode of cognizance used by Western science to gain information about biological life.

To summarize: there are three pertinent criteria to meet if we are to consider Chinese medicine an exact science, which are stated and explained above. And when we look closely at Chinese medicine, we see that it indeed does meet all three criteria. The methods of Chinese science: yin yang and the five phases have been incorrectly assessed by western quantifiable methods, when they are qualitative empirical observations. For instance, you cannot apply quantification and measurement to the movements of emotions, but you can use words in a stringent fashion to observe their changes accurately. In the same way that the metric system is an agreed upon language to convey ideas, and that the metric system is not utilizable or of significance to someone who is not well versed in the language of the metric system, so too are the five phases and yin yang only of practical value when understood fully and used in a stringent fashion. Just as you cannot use the five phases and yin yang to assess Western science, you cannot use the invented methods of Western science and the metric system to evaluate Chinese medicine.

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