In today’s post I will try and embark on the very complicated task of comparing Chinese medicine and Western medicine. Having qualified and practised in both disciplines I think I am in a good position to do so. The subject is vast, it’s multifaceted with different layers to it. It can easily fill a book or two. As usual, I am going to try and simplify matters. I will try and focus on the practical aspects: which discipline is likely to be more beneficial in which condition; what are the pros and cons etc. The next few posts will be dedicated to this comparison with a different group of conditions in each post.
However, before starting with all of this I would like to stress a very important point. In many cases it is not necessarily one type of therapy or the other which will reap the most benefit but a combination of both. In China, Chinese and Western medicine are working effortlessly in harmony side by side. Chinese medicine practitioners are also trained in Western medicine and vice versa. There is an understanding of the pros and cons, the strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, the limitations of each discipline. A Western medicine practitioner, in China, won’t hesitate to refer a patient for a course of Chinese medicine treatment on occasions where they feel it will be beneficial. A TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioner, on the other hand, will be able to identify the cases which require Western medical intervention.
Let me give you an example of how it works in practice. A stroke is a very common condition. It can have a devastating effect on the patient. In the West, from the people who survive a stroke, 33.3% will recover completely, 33.3% will partially recover, that means they will have some residual paralysis, and 33.3% will stay fully paralysed. Western medicine has no means to affect or improve this outcome. In China, however, the treatment for a stroke is a beautiful demonstration of the possible cooperation between TCM and Western medicine. A patient with a stroke will be rushed firstly into a Western medicine ward and will normally stay there for a few days only. After being assessed by the doctors as being in a stable condition, the patient will be transferred into a rehabilitation unit. On that unit most of the methods used for rehabilitation are TCM methods, namely: Acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and tuina (physiotherapy of Chinese medicine). The full recovery rates on these units is around 80%!! This demonstrates how Western and Chinese medicines can (and should) work beautifully together. Soon after the stroke, at the early stage, Western medicine is essential. In a small portion of patients emergency surgery will be needed. Chinese medicine can’t help those patients at that stage. In the later stage, however, the rehabilitation is the important factor and that is where Western medicine can’t help much but Chinese medicine can!
The question that naturally arises is why can’t it work like that in our health system? After all we all want as successful an outcome as possible for the patient. The answer is that, unfortunately, when it comes to openness towards and awareness of other treatment options we are miles behind the Chinese. Whilst TCM practitioners qualified in this country have a good knowledge and understanding of Western medicine basics and in particular of “red flag symptoms” (symptoms that may indicate a serious medical condition and therefore require a referral to a doctor), Western medicine practitioners haven’t got a clue about TCM and what it can do. There is still a complete ignorance regarding the issue and that is a great shame!
However, we can’t keep digressing from our main issue: the Great Med Off! I would like to start with the treatment of cancer. It is by far the most asked about condition in my Clinic. Can Chinese medicine cure cancer? The answer to this question is, unfortunately, in most cases, no. Chinese medicine is extremely good in fixing body systems that are malfunctioning but if there is a lump of cancerous growth in the body then it is just not strong enough. I have heard about cancer cases which have been cured or at least been improved with TCM treatment but these were all in China, in a very specialist clinic using very strong herbs (mainly animal products) which are not available to us in the UK. The bottom line is that, despite the obvious shortcomings of the Western medicine treatment for cancer (severe side effects), I still usually recommend to those who ask me to keep on with the Western medicine treatment, particularly in cases where there is a chance of a cure.
Chinese medicine, however, still has an important part to play in the treatment of cancer. On my last trip to China I saw a presentation of a big study of the treatment of cancer by a combination of TCM and Western medicine. In that study breast cancer patients were divided into two groups. One group had received the traditional Western medicine treatment of an operation and chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The other group received the same treatment and in addition they received TCM treatment that included acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and a form of exercise (QiGong or TaiChi). The results were: a) a dramatic reduction in the side effects from the Western medicine treatment and a significant increase in the quality of life in the combined Western and Chinese medicine therapy and, more surprisingly, b) a 30% increase in the survival rate in the combined treatment group! So again I would say combine if you can. The problem is that it is becoming harder and harder to combine Chinese medicine in the treatment of cancer in this country. In the past I used to treat people who were going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy with acupuncture and herbal medicines. Those treatments were very successful. The patients used to suffer much less from side effects and felt generally better. They used to go through the treatment with much less problems including less bone marrow suppression (which causes a fall in white blood cell count and often forces the doctor to stop or to reduce the chemotherapy!). It was common for my patients to report that the doctors asked them how they were staying so well. Recently, unfortunately, more and more treatment centres tell their patients not to take any other treatment during the chemotherapy. The reason given is that they don’t want anything to interfere with their treatment. This policy comes out of the ignorance of Western Medicine Doctors regarding Chinese medicine. The doctors are probably too busy to check out the available research. Again I think that it’s a great shame. So when it comes to cancer I will say definitely combine if you can but if I had to choose a winner then it is Western medicine due to its better ability to deal with tumours and an overall bigger chance of a cure.
Next in our Great Med Off are skin conditions. I chose it to follow the cancer section probably due to my need to balance things up. After giving the advantage to Western medicine regarding cancer treatment, when it comes to skin conditions then Chinese medicine is a clear winner. Skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne are common, usually chronic, and very poorly treated by Western medicine in my opinion. The Western medicine approach to treating these conditions is suffering from the usual problem: it only treats the symptoms. The first line of treatment is usually with creams, mainly creams containing steroids. On the one hand these are quite effective and will clear most types of skin lesions. The problems start when we stop using them. The condition is likely to come back. A long term use of steroid cream will damage the skin and is therefore not recommended. The use of steroid creams can therefore only be recommended in light and self limiting conditions and is usually not effective in the chronic condition. The second line of treatment is with steroid or other Immunosuppressant drugs. The dynamic there is similar to the use of cream. These medicines will often be very effective in clearing the skin condition. However, the condition will be almost certain to come back, at least as bad as it was before the treatment, when we stop the medicine. A long term use of these medicines will cause serious side effects such as kidney or liver failure, diabetes, atherosclerosis and others.
The only cases where I support the use of steroids or Immunosuppressant drugs in skin conditions are those where the condition is extremely severe and other treatments have failed.
The Chinese medicine approach for skin conditions is different. It has a good understanding of the reasons and causes of these diseases. Treatment with Acupuncture and Chinese herbs is directed towards the cause of the symptoms as well as the symptoms themselves. With chronic conditions the patient will have to be a little patient as the treatment may take a few months but the results are usually excellent and long-lasting. (For a more detailed explanation as to how Chinese medicine can understand and treat skin conditions please go to the conditions section in my website.)
In my next post I am going to discuss musculoskeletal conditions, digestive system problems and psychiatric conditions with the pros and cons of Western medicine and Chinese medicine regarding the treatment of these areas. Which one will come out on top? The answers are all in my next post.
Good health for everyone.
Dr Ilan Shahor