Traditional Chinese medicine

0

A few minutes after getting her traditional Chinese medicine injection in a hospital in Chongqing, southwest China, 25 year-old Zhang Mingjuan began hyperventilating. She’d had only a slight fever, but wanted to try the appealing combination of traditional medicine with the more rapid vector of a jab. Now she felt like she was dying, and she passed out.


In the hospital emergency room, where she awoke, she was told that quick treatment saved her life from the allergic reaction to the shot — a mixture of herbs and unlabelled antibiotics. Later, doctors told her that she would have been better off sticking to hot water and aspirin.

The combination of traditional medicine and hospital setting, of pseudoscience and life-saving treatment, might seem strange. But in modern China, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is not the realm of private enthusiasts, spiritual advisers or folk healers. It’s been institutionalised, incorporated into the state medical system, given full backing in universities, and is administered by the state. In 2012, TCM institutes and firms received an extra $1 billion in government money, outside the regular budget. TCM as a whole is a $60 billion dollar industry in mainland China and Hong Kong.

In pharmacies, TCM prescriptions are jumbled on the shelves alongside conventional drugs. Staff often see little difference between prescribing one or the other and don’t tell patients whether they’re receiving TCM or conventional treatment. Approximately 12 per cent of national health care services are provided by TCM facilities, although that figure includes conventional medicine done at TCM institutions.

Written By: James Palmer
continue to source article at aeonmagazine.com

NO COMMENTS

  1. I think there should be a study to find which traditional Chinese remedies/treatments actually work and separate them from the ones that don’t. After all, the nearly five thousand years of Chinese culture should have produced at least a few legitimate medical treatments. I would be shocked if it didn’t.

    • In reply to #2 by Booska:

      I think there should be a study to find which traditional Chinese remedies/treatments actually work and separate them from the ones that don’t. After all, the nearly five thousand years of Chinese culture should have produced at least a few legitimate medical treatments. I would be shocked if it didn’t.

      I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic (the “I’d be shocked” bit threw me off!), but I’m sure there have been studies of many of the treatments in traditional medicine (I can’t give you citations off the top of my head, unfortunately), and I seem to remember they have typically found no greater effect than placebo. Sadly, longevity of a practice is no guarantee of its effectiveness, especially when the natural capacity for spontaneous recovery (and psychosomatic illness) are included in the equation.

      • In reply to #3 by Jabarkis:

        I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic (the “I’d be shocked” bit threw me off!)…

        No sarcasm intended. I’m just saying that I would be shocked if nearly 5000 years of a pseudo-scientific approach to medicine produced nothing of any medical merit whatsoever. Their approach might be questionable, but they were seeking treatment for very real and specific symptoms. Surely they must have found a few effective treatments along the way that can be translated into the language of modern medicine.

        • In reply to #11 by Booska:

          No sarcasm intended. I’m just saying that I would be shocked if nearly 5000 years of a pseudo-scientific approach to medicine produced nothing of any medical merit whatsoever. Their appro…

          I don’t think that’s a very convincing argument. The history of science and medicine are filled with examples of pseudoscience and fake cures that are no better than a placebo. I think the placebo effect is actually one of the most important phenomena to understand early “medicine” witch doctors, shamans, etc. Its a scientific discovery that if a person thinks they are getting treatment they will tend to show some measurable improvement. I also think what can be going on with accupuncture is the same thing we see with some religious rituals. The more extreme the commitment the more the participant tends to believe something is real. So just as religious rituals sometimes require significant commitment (blood, animal sacrifices, pain, etc.) so with medical rituals like this, the fact that it seems so weird (at least to me) can actually just be a part of why people think there is something to it and hence due to the placebo effect it does work better.

          Or to bring it down to earth a bit, as I was thinking when someone recommended accupuncture for my back pain rather than Vicodin “well yeah I’ll definitely stop thinking about the pain in my back because my brain will be too busy screaming to get those f***ing needles out of me!”

    • In reply to #2 by Booska:

      I think there should be a study to find which traditional Chinese remedies/treatments actually work and separate them from the ones that don’t. After all, the nearly five thousand years of Chinese culture should have produced at least a few legitimate medical treatments. I would be shocked if it did…

      I did read about a study of acupuncture in some pop-science magazine a couple of years ago. I can’t remember the name of those conducting the study, but perhaps some googling might find it. Anyway, they used something that looked like acupuncture needles, but where the needle retracted into itself when used, so that it appeared to be a normal needle in use, but it actually only penetrated a millimeter or two into the skin, which is supposedly not enough to achieve the effects of acupuncture. Thus they had a way of doing a placebo group. The study found that acupuncture did actually help reduce experience pain significantly beyond that of the placebo. I think there was also some reduction in nausea, but I’m not sure. I can’t remember if it said anything about acupressure, which is acupuncture done with pressing fingers instead of needles. Anyway, the traditional explanation for how it works is obviously bollocks, but I don’t know of any scientific explanation of how it works. If anyone does, please share.

      • No scientific explanation for acupuncture, but there’s some plausible guesses. Mainly that it’s stimulating the incredibly powerful placebo response, based on primate grooming behaviour and general mammalian responses to relaxing and giving up control associated with ‘mothering’. May also be related to hypnosis.

        There is no standard placebo response. So it isn’t really possible to rate a treatment as no better than, or significantly better than, a placebo. All you can do is estimate the extent of placebo response in the particular situation, by carefully controlling variables. The ‘bedside manner’ of various medical treatments would be a very significant factor that affects placebo responses. So there will always be an element of placebo response, regardless of attempts to eliminate. All you can actually do is try and make the relevant placebo triggers consistent. But the response itself may vary enormously among individuals.

        The placebo response may also really be a nocebo response. Placebo just being the absence of nocebo – which may have arisen as some kind of penalty that impedes reproduction and is indirectly inflicted on individuals that don’t effectively integrate socially. The benefits of placebo occurring in primates that participate in the pecking order and undergo regular grooming and associated social bonding.

        Regarding bedside manner: check out the phenomena of ASMR – many wonderful and amusing examples from amateur contributors on YouTube. There’s also a good Wikipedia discussion of ASMR.

        I’ve experienced acupuncture years ago (though to no real long term impact on the back troubles I keep inflicting on myself owing to reckless lifestyle). My experience of acupuncture is almost identical to my experience of ASMR. Aka ‘mind fuck’ – sex related, in that I only experience it when the other party is of the opposite sex, but it’s a social rather than sexual (reproductive instincts) response. It depends on relaxation – so maybe it’s just that I’m slightly homophobic and uncomfortable with close personal attention from someone of the same sex. I’ve experienced ASMR when encountering form filling exercises with mindless bureaucrats (female) asking various mundane closed questions. E.g. Credit applications, opening accounts etc. And similar literally mind-numbing situations like pushing the shopping trolley around the supermarket while my significant other ‘key decision maker’ fluffs around selecting groceries.
        Just like acupuncture – it feels good at the time. But no noticeable long term effects.

        ASMR is definitely the cheaper alternative. Chinese alternative health practitioners may not know or care much about science but they are highly skilled at making money. Though they’ve got a long way to go to catch up with western pharmacology.

        In reply to #7 by MahouShoujoMaruin:

        In reply to #2 by Booska:

        I think there should be a study to find which traditional Chinese remedies/treatments actually work and separate them from the ones that don’t. After all, the nearly five thousand years of Chinese culture should have produced at least a few legitimate medical treatments. I…

  2. In reply to #2 by Booska:

    I think there should be a study to find which traditional Chinese remedies/treatments actually work and separate them from the ones that don’t. After all, the nearly five thousand years of Chinese culture should have produced at least a few legitimate medical treatments. I would be shocked if it didn’t.

    Off the top of my head, the antimalarial drugs derived from artemesinins count (Wiki link) though I don’t know if its inclusion in TCM is what lead to the annual wormwood being screened for active antimalarials.

    Given the ubiquity and state support of TCM in China, and the appalling quality of a lot of the trials into TCM (Link to a PLOSOne paper on the quality of sysmatic reviews in TCM), I doubt we’re going to hear much unless there’s another breakthrough that’s uequivocably demonstrable (and favourable!). Who knows what else is hiding beneath the veil of woo?

  3. I remember having Chinese herbal medicine inflicted on me when my severe childhood eczema flared again in my early teens. My mother, being both Chinese and prone to woo, thought it at least couldn’t hurt to try. I distinctly remember the mystery, the expense and the utterly foul taste of the prescribed decoctions. I also remember the doctor – she was (apparently) a conventionally-trained doctor who fled the Revolution and set up shop when she got to the UK. She also had the nicest skin I’ve ever seen on a woman of her age…

    Anyway, I also remember being given several skin creams which were the only things that seemed to help out of all of this. It’s only with the hindsight of years, a science education and a newspaper article that I learned these creams probably contained unlabelled steroids and the terrible itching one caused was probably a symptom of an allergic reaction. This went on for about 2 years. I still have suspicions (unfortunately now unprovable) that it was these that limited my growth through puberty as I am a bit short even adjusting for my parents’ heights and I don’t remember ever going through a proper growth spurt. Caveat emptor indeed!

    • In reply to #5 by Docjitters:

      I remember having Chinese herbal medicine inflicted on me when my severe childhood eczema flared again in my early teens. My mother, being both Chinese and prone to woo, thought it at least couldn’t hurt to try. I distinctly remember the mystery, the expense and the utterly foul taste of the prescri…

      Therein lies the difference between shoddy general practitioners and a reputable TCM skin specialist who uses genuine quality ingredients and is up-front about what you are being given. I went through a bout of severe, chronic dermatitis for a number of years as an adult. I tried every official/conventional Western therapy offered to me and as a last resort was faced with a potential lifetime dependency on immunosuppressant drugs that are usually given to organ donor recipients to prevent rejection. My (fully-qualified) dermatologist actually suggested that some people had reported success using TCM herbal medicine and that the hospital sometimes worked with practioners. I was somewhat dubious, but driven by desperation I thought why not give it a try. I found a reputable specialist in TCM who prescribed all-natural herbal medicine and moisturising creams. I weaned off the conventional steroids in a few weeks and slowly, over the course of 12-16 months, tweaking my prescription according to results, my skin healed completely and has remained so for years now without medication. He was actually the one who educated me about the dodgy side of TCM and those who hide steroids in their medicines and use toxic ingredients/doses. In every field of medicine there are quacks and charlatans (and I don’t hold with such things as homeopathy and allergy-testing machines btw), but to discount the whole of TCM because of some bad practitioners and treatments is a shame. Many Western drugs are derived from plant extractions, aspirin being one the best known.

      • In reply to #8 by Mister T:

        I’m glad you had a positive experience – I would give quite a lot for a reliable alternative to steroids but there simply isn’t anything that works as well or as quickly given the episodic nature of my dermatitis. Please don’t see my following ruminations as an attack on your intelligence – I know what it’s like to be desperate at such times.I have a few points/questions about what you mention:

        Therein lies the difference between shoddy general practitioners and a reputable TCM skin specialist who uses genuine quality ingredients and is up-front about what you are being given.

        How does one evaluate who is reputable, who is ‘specialist’ or what is ‘quality’ in a field of non-acreditted practise? May I ask what they said you were being given ‘up front’? Did they mention the possibility of side-edffects?

        …I found a reputable specialist in TCM who prescribed all-natural herbal medicine and moisturising creams.

        All-natural doesn’t not equal better or problem-free (see appeal to nature). The only reason you feel able to say they were ‘all natural’ is the herbalist’s word and lack of positive evidence of ‘unnatural’ ingredients. Skin creams of any kind are almost certainly based on white soft paraffin derivatives or synthetic alcohols blended with water.

        …Many Western drugs are derived from plant extractions, aspirin being one the best known.

        Absolutely. Some of those organ-transplant immunosuppresants used in eczema are extracted from natural bacteria e.g. tacrolimus. Podophyllotoxin from American Mayapple is used to make anticancer chemotherapy. I’m certainly not trying to throw the effective baby out with the quackery bathwater, I’ve already mentioned the TCM origins of the anti-malarial artemesinins in a comment earlier.

        He was actually the one who educated me about the dodgy side of TCM and those who hide steroids in their medicines and use toxic ingredients/doses.

        This doesn’t change the enormous dragging of feet in TCM to identify and refine antiquated concoctions of, let’s face it, uncertain constitution, concentration and potency. If a medicine claims to have an effect on the body, based on the alteration of physiology, there will always be a relationship between dose, efficacy and adverse effect. I would suggest many TCM practitioners (whether ‘honest’ or not) have little to gain from applying rigorous enquiry to what they do. This is dodgy too.

  4. Obviously much of Chinese medicine is nuts. However, accupuncture does work for anaesthesia, even if the rationale is complete nonsense.

    Similarly a Chinese herbalist once gave be a shopping bag of what looked like mushrooms, shells, moss and sticks. I had to boil this up, forming a foul-smelling black brew. However, the ruddy stuff worked giving me relief from nausea for one of the few times since 1985. Nothing western medicine offered was any use at all. He moved away, or I would have repeated the treatment.

    The basic recipe could have evolved from practice. The theory behind it can be complete garbage, so long as the recipe is pragmatic.

Leave a Reply