Head Hurts; Treat Foot

By Briana Neuberger

Photo by Daniel Catinella

Dr. Zhang Ji Hong placed three fingers on Sheena Rubino’s wrist and told the 25-year-old American graduate student that her spleen was weak.

In checking Rubino’s pulse, Dr. Hong was using the Chinese equivalent of a stethoscope, the tool of choice by American doctors to check a person’s general well being. This technic is at the heart of the ancient craft of Chinese medicine, which Dr. Zhang teaches at Hebei University, located about 90 miles south of Beijing.

Although it may sound strange to most Americans, discerning medical problems from a person’s pulse has been practiced for thousands of years in China. And in the past decade or so, Chinese medicine has been growing in popularity around the world, especially in the United States. Indeed, Western scholars and scientists have studied and confirmed that some practices, such as using acupuncture to relieve pain, are safe and effective.

At the heart of Chinese medicine is the idea that the body is a unit of flowing energy, known as the Qi. Any disturbance in a person’s Qi is considered an illness. In contrast, Western medicine views the body as a system of organs that work in harmony. Western medicine also considers most ailments to originate in the organ that is failing or damage. Not so in Chinese medicine and that leads to very some very different treatments.

For example, if a patient has a migraine, a Western doctor would prescribe Topamax while Chinese doctors might suggest a foot massage. “Tou Tong yi jiao, (If the head hurts treat the foot)” is the famous adage of Chinese medicine.

In addition to acupuncture and checking a person’s pulse, Chinese medical practice includes cupping and massage. Acupuncture involves thin needles inserted into the top layers of a patient’s skin, in areas called acupuncture points. Pregnant women, however, are strongly advised to stay away from acupuncture because if it’s done incorrectly, it could induce labor.

Chinese and Western medicine have shared some concepts since the time of Plato, who wrote: “The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated.”

Today, though, Western medicine focuses on treating the body, not the soul. The first thing an Emergency Medical Technician would do on arrival at accident scene is to use a stethoscope to take an injured person’s heart rate. From this an EMT can tell the condition of the patient.

In contrast, Dr. Hong’s three fingers are her stethoscope. When examining her patients, she goes to their left wrist first and uses her index finger to feel for the heart, her middle finger guides her to the liver and her third finger lets her determine the condition of the left kidney. On the patient’s right wrist, her index finger feels for the lungs, the middle finger feels for the spleen and digestive flow and her third finger feels the right kidney. Dr. Hong can also look at a patient’s tongue and get a sense of his overall health.

In acupuncture, the body is considered to have 12 meridians, or lines of longitude. Along these meridians there are 361 acupuncture points. Each point is where the Qi could be activated. Dr. Hong used an acupuncture needle to pierce the top of a patient’s hand, right below the index finger, a point called “Yangxi.” After a few seconds, the patient had a pounding sensation in her forehead and the tips of my fingers started to tingle. In examining this patient, Dr. Hong never used a Western medical device such as a stethoscope or a blood pressure cuff.

Rubino is another a case in point in how Chinese and Western medicine differ. After Dr. Hong diagnosed Rubino with a troubled spleen, she inserted five metal squares, each with herbal medicine, into her ear. She told Rubino to press on the squares ten times a day for five days. This was Dr. Hong’s recommendation to strengthen Sheena’s spleen. The spleen, which filters blood and stores white blood cells, is important in fighting bacterial infections such as pneumonia and meningitis. Western doctors typically remove a speed if it becomes defective.

Chinese and Western medicine also differ in what qualifies you to practice. Chinese medical education is usually a five-year Bachelor program. This includes a one-year internship, in which students are involved in direct patient care. Acceptance is based on a two-day national entrance exam used for all the universities.

In America, there are two degrees students can earn: Medical Degree (MD) and a Degree of Osteopathy (DO). MDs focus on fixing what hurts, such prescribing aspirin for a headache. In contrast, a DO will treat a headache like in Chinese medicine, examining a person from head to toe.

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