One in five patients has symptoms which are undiagnosed by medicine. The cost of treating them is twice that of a diagnosed patient. A new study has been carried out to asses if acupuncture benefits this group of patients.
Researchers from the Institute of Health Services Research, Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter, carried out a randomised control trial and a linked interview study regarding 80 such patients across London, to investigate their experiences of having acupuncture added to their usual care. They found that acupuncture had a significant and sustained benefit for these patients and consequently acupuncture could be added safely to the therapies used by practitioners when treating frequently attending patients with medically unexplained conditions. Dr Charlotte Paterson, who managed the randomised control trial and the longitudinal study of patients’ experiences, commented, “Our research indicates that the addition of up to 12 five-element acupuncture consultations to the usual care experienced by the patients in the trial was feasible and acceptable and resulted in improved overall well-being that was sustained for up to a year.” She added, “Such intervention could not only result in potential resource savings for the NHS, but would also improve the quality of life for a group of patients for whom traditional biomedicine has little in the way of effective diagnosis and treatment.”
Acupuncture benefits patients by looking at them from a different perspective.
Now I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of this study but rather pick the ball up and run in a slightly different direction. If I were to don the ‘NLP’ hat my first question would be, “mystery illness to who”? Clearly mysterious to modern medicine. The primary reason that Eastern medicine excels in treating such conditions is that there is no mystery. The traditional Chinese medical intake is able to “pattern differentiate” such illness and come up with a plan of therapeutic intervention. It is the broader view of traditional medicine that allows this. Ayurvedic medicine would have no problems in this regard either.
One illustration of this would be the Chinese view of the organ system. Modern Western thought is reductionist. The body is reduced down to its smallest constituents. For example, the liver is understood at the molecular, biochemical level. Doctors diagnose the liver initially from a ‘liver function’ blood test. This method is hugely useful for many problems, but for others it just isn’t subtle enough. On the contrary, classical Chinese thought was syncretic and holistic.
The Liver in Chinese medicine is represented by both the physical organ and the Liver acupuncture channel. The Liver is in complex relation to all the other organs, both directly and indirectly. The Liver is a yin organ paired to the yang Gall Bladder. The Gall Bladder channel originates just lateral to the eye on the temple, travels around the head, down the neck and sides of the body to the outside of the foot. One of the most common patterns of Liver dysfunction that I see in the clinic is Liver Yang Rising pattern. The predominant feature here is recurrent headaches. The Liver energy is rising (a yang tendency) to the head and blocking the Gall Bladder channel, causing pain; a headache.
Another feature of this holistic view is that the mind and body aren’t viewed as separate in Chinese medicine; a view in agreement with the latest biomedical research. Each organ/channel is associated with certain emotions. The Liver is a very yang organ and when its free-flow of energy is blocked there is tension, irritability, outright rage and anger or a low-grade depression. Can you think of anyone you know that gets regular headaches? Can they be a little tense or crabby? The liver helps the smooth flow of energy through the whole body, including the rhythmic menstrual cycle. Here, the Liver energy is most likely to stagnate just prior to menstruation; just when there might be some premenstrual tension – which you now know is a manifestation of Liver qi (energy) stagnation. It is also a common time for a woman to get a headache or migraine.
Each aspect of our physiology in Chinese medicine is linked to the environment. The Liver is affected by the Wind. Ask any primary school teacher and they will tell you that children are more difficult on a windy day. The environmental associations aren’t limited to climactic conditions but to times of the day and year. The Liver relates to spring time. Spring is a very yang time of the year – the days are getting longer, trees are budding, things get more green; the colour of Wood – the element associated with the Liver (the elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water). A person with a Liver/Wood imbalance may have a greenish hue around the mouth; a clue to the acupuncturist to look for Liver patterns. When we are well Spring can be a joyous time full of hope for the year ahead. We make plans for the coming year. But if a person’s Liver Qi (energy) is constrained they may feel depressed and hopeless. More suicides occur in early Spring than any other time. I could go on with many more examples just with the holistic associations of the Liver and the Wood element; let alone the other Elements, the six energies, the eight extra-ordinary vessels, yin and yang, etc.
To get back to the mysterious illnesses which Western medicine is unable to diagnose; these illnesses are actually very common and make up a large proportion of any general practitioners caseload. They are often pre-illness states. Someone might feel vaguely ill for years before their complaint advances enough to be picked up on blood tests. Often these illnesses are functional. They relate to a subtle breakdown of control rather that to overt structural changes. Eastern medicine is always able to differentiate these conditions. It is always able to come up with a therapeutic plan. Now, obviously, it won’t always bring healing and resolution of the illness. So often these relate to patient lifestyle and behaviours. We can make recommendations but these aren’t always followed. There can be psychological blocks to healing. But we can come up with a plan and have a chance of bringing healing.
The strangest mystery illness I have had in my clinic was early in my career. I had a middle-aged woman who was a professional dowser. She was well in every way, but had simply lost her ability to dowse. All I could do was make a subtle observation of any patterns of imbalance and analyze her 5-element constitution; using subtle signs such as pulse qualities and volumes, facial colour, tone of voice, emotional balance and so on. It took one or two treatments and she was back to practicing dowsing. A skeptic would argue that this was mere placebo. I wouldn’t necessarily argue. Placebo can be the gentlest and most effective medicine there is.