It’s been around for 2,500 years, so it has to have something going for it

When you start to look at ancient Chinese medical practices the first thing you’re greeted with is skepticism. Articles are quick to point at words like pseudoscience, and cite ‘lack of evidence’. Yet each year millions of people visit an alternative practitioner and many people swear by the treatment they have received.

This clear mismatch between the experiential and the evidential is something I thought worth looking at. The disparity between traditional Chinese and western medicine is marked. Chinese medicine was already complex, documented and thought out, while in the west, barbers were still bleeding people by applying leeches.

Chinese medicine

A basic and different starting point

Western medicine is concerned with the structure of the body, it will look at bones, and organs even the cells these are made up of. It is an approach that has some obvious benefits; if a broken leg needs to be repaired the western approach of setting the bone makes more sense than acupuncture. But it also explains why western medicine has a poor history when it comes to mental illness, only recently being addressed.

Chinese medicine starts from a different premise. Vital energy, called the chi or qi, circulates throughout the body through a series of channels called meridians. Branches from the meridians connect to the body’s structure and organs. Chinese medicine looks to the functions of the body, breathing, temperature, digestion. The functions are associated with a functional entity. The body tissues are associated with the blood for example, and so it follows a blockage in qi which causes a skin disease is treated by looking at the blood.

The issue for western practitioners is there is no evidence meridians actually exist, and the result for the skeptic is a crash of the whole system. To make matters worse in 2006 a Chinese doctor agreed.

Back Ache

Writing as a total amateur with nothing other than experiential evidence, there are some things western medicine is not good at dealing with. Backache is an obvious choice. Backache results in the loss of 32million workdays per year. Western medicine prescribes rest, painkillers and TENS machines. Chinese medicine prescribes acupuncture.

If we are exactly fair, what acupuncture does is provide short-term relief, but then the cyclical nature of back problems might mean that is all anyone is going to receive. If you want to be a cynic we could agree that neither cures back problems. Or both provide temporary relief, but perhaps acupuncture does it faster.

When we turn to Chinese medicine

The dichotomy between Chinese and western medicine continues to deepen because we, as a society, frequently turn to alternative medicine when faced with something that western medicine is unable to help.

And in a nutshell, there is the issue. There will never be any empirical evidence until there’s a real study, and there will never be a real study because we seek an alternative when there is no other choice.