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Medical Use of TCM

Traditional Chinese medicine is an integral part of the health care system of China, helping to provide affordable health care for China's 1.3 billion people. TCM is also proving an effective complement to modern Western medicine in China.

In the United States, acupuncture is the most popular component of TCM. However, American schools of acupuncture are adding courses in Chinese herbal medicine, massage, and diet and nutrition, to reflect the full range of TCM interventions.

Growth of TCM in the United States is limited in part by a lack of adequate insurance coverage. Although acupuncture is frequently covered, herbal medicines often are not covered. Until more studies are done, it is unlikely that insurance companies will cover TCM herbs, and this will undoubtedly stunt the growth of Chinese herbal use in America.

However, despite lack of insurance coverage, there is an ethnic Chinese population who regularly patronize TCM practitioners, many of whom are essentially practicing underground. A recent survey of Chinese Americans revealed that first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants tend to use Chinese therapies at a rate of 44 and 42 percent, respectively. In New York's Chinatown, rheumatism is the complaint for which Chinese Americans most frequently seek TCM treatment. Chinese Americans in San Francisco's Chinatown most often use TCM for the treatment of rheumatism, bruises, and sprains.

In the United States, TCM may be a reasonable first choice of treatment for people who are marginalized by the present health care system. Those without health insurance may find TCM more affordable than insurance. A monthly TCM office visit and a month's supply of herbs averages about $120, while a group insurance plan averages about $160. For people who distrust conventional medicine, TCM offers a possible alternative, especially since it is currently licensed in thirty-four states. For people who don't regularly see doctors, going to a TCM practitioner could help reveal a medical problem, and help avoid a trip to an emergency room, which is often where sick people go when they don't have a family doctor.

In conventional medical facilities where TCM is offered, TCM may be the most reasonable first approach for certain conditions. If the patient has a condition that is not life-threatening and does not require a detailed medical diagnosis, then TCM might be tried first. This type of condition might include back pain, physical stress, PMS, mild digestive problems, minor infections, colds, flu, bronchitis, or sinusitis. Treatment with TCM generally produces positive changes within one to three months. If the problem persists, conventional care could be applied.

For the treatment of more serious diseases, TCM can be used in conjunction with Western medicine. This combined approach could help to reduce the amount of drug therapy, to help avoid surgery, and to enhance the outcome of conventional therapies.

A number of clinical trials indicate the value of TCM. Decisions about using TCM, however, should not be based solely on whether clinical trials support TCM use for particular illnesses. Such evidence is now generally lacking, and unnecessarily limits the application of TCM. Even the well-designed research that does exist can only offer examples of limited ways in which TCM can be used, without proving the efficacy of the system as a whole.

Another situation in which TCM can be appropriately used is in the treatment of terminal patients. Chinese medicine can help make these patients more comfortable and reduce their need for drugs.

In the United States, some practitioners are successfully integrating Western medicine and TCM, and currently at the Center for Integrated Medicine in Houston, Dr. Christina Stemmler, formerly of Duke University, uses both TCM and various Western modalities.

However, other doctors in the United States are practicing a hybrid form of Chinese medicine, in which they administer Chinese herbs as homeopathic preparations, herbal tinctures, or other low-dosage preparations, which is not part of the traditional practice of TCM. Such remedies have not yet been proven effective, so consumers should be cautious.

When used in conjunction with Western medicine, TCM herbal medicine has become a popular approach in the United States for addressing certain life-threatening diseases, particularly cancer and AIDS.

Writing in Choices in Healing, Dr. Michael Lerner has observed that TCM is the most popular nonconventional treatment used by Western cancer patients. TCM has no treatments that are used solely for cancer, but offers many formulas that help with various symptoms of cancer, including edema and pain. In addition, approximately 120 species of Chinese herbs are sometimes used to adjunctively treat cancer. Although the TCM view of cancer causation is quite different from the Western view, many TCM herbal formulas contain ingredients that have been proven pharmacologically active in treating cancer. TCM herbal therapies have already led to the development of a number of anticancer drugs, such as indirubin, derived from dang gui lu hui wan, and irisquinone, derived from Iris lacteapallasii.


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Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.


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