I have a Google alert set up for the keywords acupuncture and Chinese medicine. What this means is that every day I get an email from Google with articles, studies, and links where those words appeared in a newsworthy manner. I get lost of notices about acupuncture clinics that are opening, popular press articles about Chinese medicine, and reactions to ongoing research.
I find it interesting that after the results of a study documenting the effectiveness of acupuncture for a certain condition appears, I will usually see an article or two. However, when a study has found that acupuncture is no more effective than conventional treatments or worse, a placebo, I see articles about it for days. I laugh, because I have to decide whether or not to tell my acupuncture patients who got considerable relief from their treatments that a study says, um…acupuncture can’t help your condition.
So research says that acupuncture can’t heal your knee pain, or your back pain, or your hot flashes. Except that it does—for a lot of people in a clinical setting. It also helps a lot of people in most research studies, but just not a statistically significant number when compared to “conventional” Western treatments or a control group that received something called “sham” (pretend) acupuncture. For those people who find relief, acupuncture naysayers and talking heads are quick to label the phenomenon the placebo effect—essentially the healing effect was all in their head.
The healing impact of the placebo effect is almost always cast in a negative light and relegated to the bottom of the therapeutic heap. And this is where Western biomedicine and Chinese medicine part ways. When the placebo effect is stigmatized negatively it conveys the message that putting your mind in a place to allow healing is a bad thing. Chinese medicine is all about using the power of the mind and spirit to heal the body.
This is not to say that the effects of acupuncture and Chinese medicine are due to the placebo effect. For simple proof, the fact that acupuncture works on animals should be convincing. If that’s not enough, there are countless research studies that document the physiological effects of acupuncture, including changing brain chemistry, regulating hormones, increasing circulation, and upregulating the body’s opioid system—just for starters.
That said, a practitioner of Chinese medicine has numerous tools, beyond the physical, in which to engage the mind and spirit in the healing process of the body. Among them:
-Listening. Considered to be one of the four classical examinations in Chinese medicine, a practitioner will take the time to listen to a patient’s story—the history of their symptoms. They will also listen to the strength of their voice, the tone in which they speak, and even their choice of words. All of these direct the practitioner to their diagnosis and treatment. In addition, being heard is therapeutic. I have had dozens of patients who have told me they feel better just telling me the story of their illness.
-Chinese medicine is hands on. Patients are touched in a therapeutic way, which is considered to be a healing tool in this medicine.
-Acupuncture is calming. Studies on the physiological effects of acupuncture indicate that the circulation of feel-good endorphins and the body’s own pain-killing substances are increased after an acupuncture session. In a recent study on the use of acupuncture in an emergency room setting, doctors noted that not only did acupuncture help with pain, but it was also effective in calming patients in what is a high-stress situation.
-Acupuncture is considered to be slow medicine. Patients are not rushed through their session. They are listened to, treated, and allowed to rest with the needles retained for at least twenty minutes. The effects of acupuncture and Chinese herbs are effective, unhurried, and deliberate. As a result, treatments tend to be effective with few or no side-effects.
-Intention plays a role in the healing process. You may want to discount this one as woo woo, but who would you rather see—a practitioner who has taken the time and engaged and touched you in a caring way, or one who has rushed you through their office in ten minutes while taking notes on their computer and checking their watch? I know which one I’ll choose.
While your practitioner and the medicine itself is geared to engage the mind and spirit in the healing process, how do you, as a patient help yourself heal? While there is no single answer, here are a few things to think about:
-Realize that your symptoms are your body’s way of telling you something is out of balance.
-Remember that you are what you think. Focusing on good health and joyfulness is more powerful than spending your time worrying about avoiding illness.
-Know that your body is programmed to heal. It’s what it does. Sometimes we just have to get out of our own way.
-Understand that in order to heal, you need to understand the source of your ill health. Otherwise, you’re just dealing with symptoms.
-Furthermore, know that everything is connected to everything else. You may not see the link between a string of really bad days at work and your digestive problems, but the connection is very real.
-Realize that in any situation that has the ability to make you sick, you have choices. You may understand that a toxic co-worker is stressing you out to the point of illness. You may feel like there’s nothing you can do, but you can confront them, talk to Human Resources, avoid them, quit your job, or see them as the insecure and needy person they are and treat them accordingly.
-Finally, remember that calming your mind is powerful medicine. Meditation, visualization, breathing, and even a positive outlook all can play a role in the healing power of the mind-body-spirit connection.