Traditional Chinese Medicine - What do We know?

The traditional Chinese system of health has been in existence for thousands of years. (This is also true of Hindu Ayurvedic medicine, and perhaps also true for our own Malay traditional healers.) However, although documentation is much improved these days, acceptable standards and proofs are still lacking, and reconciling these very different systems and methodology of beliefs can be very difficult. Take traditional Chinese medicine. "Traditional Chinese medicine embodies rich dialectical thought, such as that of the holistic connections and the unity of the yin and yang," says Dr Huang Jianping, in his book "Methodology of Traditional Chinese Medicine".

Theories such as the yin-yang harmony, zangxiang, bianzhenglunzhi, wuyun and liuqi (five elements’ evolutions, and six kinds of natural factors) and ziwuliuzhu (midnight-noon ebb-flow) tries to unify the facets of human anatomy and physiology (zangfu: organs, jingluo: main and collateral channels, qi: vital energy, blood, jing: essence of life, and body fluid) with the inside and outside of the body, as well as connections between the whole and the part. These also try to correlate the interactions within the body with that outside in the environment i.e. with the universe, the sun, the moon, the weather, the seasons and even the surrounding geography. Clearly such a disparate methodology cannot be easily reconciled with allopathic medicine. However, this is not too say that one is the lesser for it. We just cannot understand or explain it sufficiently well to incorporate it wholesale into our scientific practice.

But, we have made many inroads into understanding some aspects of traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is now known to be useful in providing some regional anaesthesia in some patients, and has been recognized within a limited ambiance in some countries such as Australia and Canada and of course in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Its exact role has not yet been delineated, but it may be a useful adjunct. Acupuncture and reflexology (foot acupressure) is frequently sought for by patients with bowel complaints, arthritic problems, hemiplegia or stroke, but their efficacy is still somewhat poorly documented and remains unproved.

Certain herbal medicines are increasingly investigated and some have been found to be useful, but remain untapped because of the difficulty in identifying and purifying the exact pharmacological entity and activity of the ingredients. Chinese herbs such as Korean ginseng, American ginseng and gingko biloba, are popular but we are still unclear as to its actual benefits. The huge amounts purchased and used by Malaysians attest that they are at least harmless.

Another notable drug is that of artemisinin or qinghaoshu, which has now been isolated and purified as artesunate or artemether for treatment of multidrug-resistant Falciparum malaria. However, recent comparison reports suggest that there are some important adverse effects which cannot make it a first line drug when compared with quinine or mefloquine.

Other treatment claims such as cancer cures remain unproven and anecdotal, much to the dismay of many who have grasped such a fragile straw. In a large part, our lack of understanding is due to our lack of knowledge and communication with others in the alternative fields. Thus, we would like to urge the traditional practitioners to be more proactive in detailing and documenting their research and therapies, so that we can become better informed. The editor would like to encourage medical practitioners or Chinese physicians who are experts in traditional medicine to write in to enlighten us, the western-oriented doctors.

The Editor

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