Chinese traditional herbal medicine

Chinese traditional herbal medicine is an alternative system of treatment arising from a holistic philosophy of life. It emphasizes the interconnection ofthe mental, emotional, and physical components within each person, and the importance of harmony between individuals and their social groups, as well asbetween humanity as a whole and nature. Although Chinese medicine is neitherthe oldest system recorded by historians nor the only form of herbal therapypracticed today, it is the oldest continuous surviving tradition of herbal medicine. The only other alternative system of treatment that can be traced asfar back as Chinese medicine is the Ayurvedic system of India. It should be noted that traditional Chinese herbal medicine did not develop in complete isolation. As early as the second century B.C., Chinese merchants in India cameinto contact with Ayurvedic medicine. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries A.D., Chinese trade with the West--especially with the Dutch--led to exchanges of information and observations about the use of herbs in medical treatment.

In 1970 the Chinese Academy of Medical Science published a collection of traditional herbal remedies in common use. It lists 796 prescriptions made from combinations of 248 plant or animal ingredients. A group of American pharmacologists evaluated these prescriptions in 1974 and estimated that 44.7% are useful, measured by present western methods of chemical analysis.

The purpose of Chinese traditional herbal medicine is to restore health through correction of imbalances within the patient's body or between the patientand the larger social and natural order. Chinese medicine regards the human body as a small-scale reflection of the cosmos. The principles of treatment are derived from Taoism, a philosophy or religion that emphasizes following theright path, or Tao, in order to find one's place within the larger universeof being. Taoism's holistic emphasis was reflected in the close correlation between Chinese herbal medicine and daily dietary habits. Foods were eaten with regard to their therapeutic qualities and adjusted to changes in the body.Traditional herbal medicine in China included preventive treatment. It was acustomary part of people's lives, not necessarily reserved for acute illnessor emergencies.

The specific teachings of Taoism that have had the most profound effect on Chinese medicine are the concept of duality, and the belief in a primordial form of universal energy called qi. The terms yin and yang are applied tothe two primal opposites that continually interact and produce constant change in the universe. These opposites are regarded as interdependent rather than mutually destructive or antagonistic. Humans participate in qi, or the universal life force, which circulates throughout the body and determinesthe person's basic level of vitality.

Over a period of centuries, Chinese doctors worked out elaborate systems of correlation between yin and yang and the so-called five elements (wood, fire,earth, metal, and water); the ten major internal organs of the body; and meridians, or invisible three-dimensional pathways that circulate qi and blood throughout the body. The meridians regulate the yin/yang balance in thebody, provide connections between the individual human being and cosmic forces or influences, and protect the body against external sources of disease. There are certain points along the meridians where qi is thought to collect or concentrate. These points are used in Chinese medicine for acupuncturetreatment as well as diagnosis. Prescriptions for herbal medicines are formulated to correct excesses of yin or yang, blockages or incorrect direction inthe flow of qi, disorders located in a specific organ, and the emotional problems that accompany physical illness. Chinese herbal medicine does not distinguish between psychiatric and general medical conditions in the manner of western medicine.

Diagnosis in Chinese medicine has four phases. The doctor first makes a visual examination, noting the patient's expression, complexion, and general physique. The distinctive feature of Chinese medicine is the detailed examinationof the tongue for color, shape, and coating (if any). Next, the doctor listens to the patient's breathing and looks for any unusual body sounds or odors.A verbal questioning phase follows that is similar to history taking in a western medical examination. And finally, the doctor feels the patient's ten organs through the abdomen, the qi points along the meridians, and the pulse. Chinese medicine distinguishes three different pulse points on each wrist and as many as 30 different pulse qualities at each point. Pulse diagnosistakes years to master in the Chinese system and is regarded by patients as animportant measure of a doctor's skill.

Traditional Chinese herbal medicine applies herbs to the body externally as well as internally. Dried herbs may be mixed with water and used as poulticesto treat arthritis, rheumatism, sprains, bruises, abscesses, and strained backs. A distinctive technique is the use of moxibustion, which is the application of heat to an area of skin directly over a meridian by burning a wick madeof herbs (usually mugwort) a slight distance above the skin. Moxibustion isused to treat many conditions, including mumps, vaginal bleeding, pulled nerves, arthritis, and chronic nosebleeds.

Acupuncture, massage, and the use of suction cups, called cupping, are external treatments that are often used in Chinese medicine in conjunction with internal herbal therapy.

Traditional Chinese medicine uses herbs for preventive treatment as well as for curing illness. Prescriptions are fine-tuned by the herbalist, as well asby the doctor, and formulated according to the individual patient's constitution, as well as the nature of the herbs. When the patient takes the doctor'sprescription to the herbalist, it will be made up in one of several traditional forms: broth, pills, wine with herbs steeped in it, gum, fermented dough,or paste. Pills may be made with wax, honey, or flour paste. Pastes can oftenbe used externally as well as internally.

Normal results are recovery from the illness or internal imbalance for whichthe patient was treated.

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