A brief guide to Chinese Medical Diagnosis
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have been used for thousands of years
with a proven track record of success.
Acupuncture practitioners are generally regarded as being in the sub-category with physical therapists and chiropractors, but their breadth of knowledge is often much wider because they usually have extensive training in not only acupuncture but also Western medicine, Chinese herbs, Chinese nutrition, and manual therapies like qigong and Tuina.
No other professional medical degree in the United States offers multi-cultural training in such a wide range of treatment modalities.
Accordingly each acupuncture practitioner has his or her own area of
specialty, and no two professional acupuncturists are exactly alike.
This is also why Oriental medicine and its practice are regarded as
both an art and a science. Although there are a few ways to take shortcuts in the educational process the majority of licensed acupuncturists studied for 7 to 8 years, while doctors of Oriental Medicine generally study for 9 to 10 years.
The following introduction to acupuncture is intended as a brief guide to the theory and intention surrounding the practice of acupuncture.
Non-compliance of the acupuncture patient, including not adhering to the basic principles of traditional Chinese medicine, is most certainly counter productive to the overall success of the healing process.
By taking time to research the full scope of Oriental medicine before you visit your acupuncturist (using our tutorials below) you'll increase the chances that Oriental medicine can work for you.
Exploring Oriental Medicine: A Brief Introduction
Heat, Cold, and Dampness:
Other Key Elements of Diagnosis:
The most basic concept in Chinese medicine is the concept of Hot and Cold, and the concept of excess and deficiency. Excessive consumption of spicy foods, excessive exposure
to direct sunlight, and other habits like smoking can lead to heat build up in the body. Consumption of cold foods like ice cream or regular exposure to cold temperatures in the environment can cause cold to build up in the body.
For most people the concept of heat and cold is a easy one to grasp, but a slightly more complicated diagnosis is dampness. Dampness can cause lassitude, foggy thinking, and slow digestion. Dampness is usually the result of poor diet consisting of greasy foods, alcohol, and/or raw (cold) foods that have damaged the spleen's ability to perform its digestive functions.
No discussion on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) would be complete without exploring the basic concepts of yin, yang, and the five elements. These concepts help to define the very categories
which lead to your Chinese medical diagnosis. So let's start with the basics...
The Concept of Yin and Yang
Yin and Yang are ways of describing the universe, and also your body which exists within the universe. Yin is considered to be at rest, while yang is considered to be in motion.
Children are considered to be more yang than their elderly
counterparts. Winter is more yin than any of the other seasons, while the Summer is the most yang of any season. Yin is considered to be female while yang energy is thought of as male. It may help to start with
the analogy of night and day. If yin is night, than yang is day. If yin is the moon, then the sun is yang. Sounds simple, right? And in some ways it is... but if really want to understand Oriental medicine
then there a few key concepts about yin and yang that you should
- Yin and Yang are relative to themselves
- The concept of inter-dependence
- The concept of mutual consumption
- Understanding the Opposition of yin and yang
- Understanding the Tranformation of yin and yang (into each other)
To first understand that yin and yang are relative to themselves let's start with the day and night example from above. If yin is night then yang is day, correct? Yes, true. But what about
early morning compared to high noon... which is more yang? Compared to the morning, high noon would be considered more yang.
When the sun reaches its highest point in the sky it would be considered to be the maximum-yang point in time for that day.
Similarly midnight would be considered maximum Yin for that night. Likewise 10pm would be less yin than midnight, and so on.
Next let's explore the concept that Yin and Yang are also inter-dependant. At the core of this concept is the principle that one could not exist
without the other. Continuing with our example, the night could not exist without the day time. If there were no day then it would always be night. If it were always night then yin and yang would not exist.
Without its opposite, the other could not exist.
Yin and yang are also mutually consumptive - that is to say they consume each other as they change. As the sun approaches highest noon, the yin of the morning is decreasing. When the sun hits high noon then yin is at its lowest point. But once the sun passes high noon then night time is
once again approaching, and the yin has once again begun to increase
just as the yang has begun to decrease.
Similarly Yin and Yang are mutually transformative whilst being in direct opposition to each other. The day transforms into night just as the night transforms into day. Extreme heat will transform into cold, while extreme cold will transform into heat.
If you'll notice the Tai Ji symbol
(that famous black and white circle you've seen many times that
makes you think of China) you'll see that it embodies this principle of mutual
consumption. The Tai Ji shows not only black in opposition to white, but also
that a white dot exists in the center of black (and vice versa).
Oriental medicine teaches that the only thing that is constant is
How Yin and Yang Relate to Your Health:
Yin and yang are concepts that can be used to describe the functioning of your body, its organs, and its disharmonies. Yin deficiency can affect organs such as your liver, heart, and spleen. While yin deficiency indicates an organ that is not getting enough deep rest, yang deficiency indicates an organ that is not able to
get up and go. Someone who has an excess of yin might sleep too
much, while a yang excess type of person may find it impossible to
relax from their daily activities. Liver yang personalities
tend to be compulsive workaholics with short tempers. Yang deficiency symptoms might include lassitude or feelings of coldness in the body, while yin deficiency could manifest as
insomnia or hot flashes. Traditional Chinese medicine is very complex, and there are dozens of diagnosis related to either excess or deficiency of yin and yang
in the various organs. What you need to understand is that yin and yang represent a way of seeing the world, the universe, your body, and your health. By classifying your body into a category of disharmony, the disharmony can then corrected back into harmony
using acupuncture, Chinese herbs, nutrition,Tuina, and practices
like Qigong. Like the five elements system described below, yin and yang are like a pair of glasses for your practitioner. They're just a way of understanding the world (so that you can begin to change it!)
The Concept of Five Elements
In addition the yin and yang, Chinese medicine teaches that the body is made up of five elements (Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth). Organs are also related to each other. Each organ system pair is related to one of the five elements as desribed below.
- Stomach and Spleen are Earth
- Lung and Large Instestine are Metal
- Kidneys and Urine Bladder are Water
- Liver and Gallbladder are Wood
- Heart and Small Intestine are Fire
- Pericardium and San Jiao are Fire
As you can see there are twelve major organ systems in Chinese medicine, and each organ system pair is related to one of the five elements. Like the concept of yin and yang the five element system is a way of seeing the world - a pair of glasses that your practitioner can use to understand and adjust patterns of disharmony.
It is not the purpose of Chinese medicine to be absolute, but to be relative. Five element diagnosis is simply a theory that helps to explain disharmonies in your health. By implementing the five element system of medicine your practitioner can change the way in which your body functions, which in turn can lead to a cure for disease.
The five elements control each other, and generate each other at the same time. They can also insult each other and overact upon each other. Because this guide is meant as a simple introduction, lets just look at the two most simple sequences below: generating and controlling.
The Generating Sequence of Five Element Theory
Remember that this is just a theory that's used to explain patterns of disharmony. The generating sequence explains how increasing
(tonifying) one element can lead to an increase in its child element. Just as earth generates metal on our planet, so will tonifying the earth (spleen and stomach)
tonify metal (lung and large intestine). And just as water will condense and form droplets on
a metal surface, tonifying metal generates water within the body.
Trees of course can not grow without water which is why tonifying water
(kidney and urine bladder) will generate wood and tonify the liver
and gallbladder. Wood (liver and gallbladder) in turn is used to generate fire
that can then tonify the heart, small intestine, pericardium, and
san jiao. And just as the earth's core is made of fire, fire generates earth
to tonify the spleen and stomach.
Controlling Sequence of Five Element Theory
The last sequence we will examine in this article is the controlling sequence of Chinese medicine. While the generating sequence explains how to tonify a given organ system, the controlling sequence explains how to reduce a given organ system. To understand how each element controls its counterpart consider the following analogies.
Wood controls earth by covering its surface, while the hot fire of a forge can be used to control (melt) metal. A Metal axe controls trees made of wood by chopping them down, and water controls fire by extinguishing it. Finally earth can control water by soaking it up, just as the great floods will slowly recede as the water sinks into the earth.
The Concepts of Qi and Blood
To conclude our introduction to Chinese medical diagnosis let's examine two final concepts: qi and blood. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive discussion of Chinese medical diagnosis, but merely an introduction to several key concepts. Your practitioner may very well have more information for you when you visit his/her office, but its important for you to be armed with some basic knowledge before beginning your healing journey.
The Concept of Qi -
Qi is simply a word for energy: the life force that animates all things. The Chinese character for Qi symbolizes the steam that is rising off a bowl of rice. You can't see it, but you can feel it. Coming from a strictly analytical point of view you could think of qi as electricity within the body, but the Chinese concept of qi is more broad and more advanced. Qi is not only electrical, but could also be magnetic, thermal, gravitational, or chemical. Anything the moves and changes is motivated by qi. Western biology seeks to understand processes at a cellular level by explaining ATP synthesis and the Krebb's cycle, but Chinese medicine is concerned with the person as a whole and so it does not dote on the microscopic details. In Chinese medicine every part of the body is seen as related to, and a reflection of, another part of the body. This is why the whole body can be treated with auricular acupuncture (acupuncture of the ear).
The Concept of Blood -
Perhaps more simple to understand from a Westerner's perspective is the concept of blood. Blood is of course, simply speaking, the blood that flows through your veins, nourishes your body, and powers your organ systems.
Just as you may have an excess or deficiency of yin and yang, you may also have an excess or deficiency of qi and blood. Blood excess may manifest as stagnaton in the legs, creating edema and unsightly vericose veins. Blood deficiency can lead to dryness, dim vision, heart palpitations, and poor memory. Qi deficiency can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, or poor intestinal motility. Overall qi excess is generally seen in young children, and can manifest as wild or reckless behaviour.
Clinically speaking people are rarely simply suffering from "qi deficiency" or "qi excess" but rather they have a relative deficiency in one organ system and an excess in another. Excessive liver qi can manifest as liver qi stagnation which causes symptoms like irritability, moodiness, and PMS. The diagnosis of liver qi stagnation often present alongside spleen qi deficiency which in turn shows up as gas, bloating, foggy thinking, and poor digestion. In the case of liver qi excess alongside spleen qi deficiency the practitioner can diagnose the person as having relatively too much qi in the liver and not enough qi in the spleen. Specific acupuncture points, nutrition advice, and Chinese herbs can then be prescribed to help the
return to greater harmony and experience less disease.
This introduction to Chinese medical diagnosis is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but aims to provide you with enough basic information to feel comfortable talking to your Honolulu acupuncturist. Keep reading below to find out more about Manual Therapy, Chinese Nutrition, Chinese Herbs, and Treatments that are available within the scope of Oriental medicine.
Exploring Oriental Medicine: A Brief Introduction