Chinese medicine, the straight dope, please.

The way I see it, there are all kinds of scam medical practitioners in Chinese medicine as in Western medicine. However, from personal experience and from testimonies of other satisfied clients, the genuine traditional Chinese medicine that is predominantly herbal is quite efficacious for a good number of complaints.

Of course a lot of Chinese medical practices have been proven to be efficacious on exclusively auto-suggestion mechanism; but there are materiae medicae and treatments that are really efficacious on their intrinsic merits.

What I like to hear from fellow dopers here, who are critical and maybe even scientifically trained in medical researches, is how the serious Chinese medicine works, assuming it truly works?

If you ask my opinion, for those who are spending money and time and trouble with Western medicine and getting nowhere, and you are not in any kind of terminal disease which you yourself know you are, and perhaps even in that situation, try Chinese medicine.

Here are my tips on how to find a good Chinese medicine practitioner and what to expect:

  1. Get someone from China and who used to practice there, not anyone who grew up in the U.S. or elsewhere.

  2. Get someone who does not sell the medical materials which he also prescribes. You buy the prescribed herbs from the standard Chinese apothecary (that’s a druggist, OK, a pharmacist, but make sure the shop is owned and operated by an ethnic Chinese, one from China).

  3. Get someone who does not charge except reasonably; how much? The one I see every now and then and people I know and others who refer him to me, I pay him the routine $20 per visit.

  4. You might have to wait long, because there are a lot of others from the deprived neighborhoods waiting to see him. You don’t make any appointment, just go there early and wait.

  5. If you get someone who does not speak except a few English words, you might be lucky, yes lucky; because then he’s the real MacCoy, not yet diluted with pretenses toward Western medicine. The Chinese also seeing him, maybe much fewer than guys from deprived neighborhoods, will help you and him to communicate.

  6. Most probably no privacy during the consultation, you just tell him your complaints with a straight face in the presence of others waiting to see him.

  7. He will take your blood pulse from each wrist - and sometimes he will call out in his own English: “All cellphones shut”, addressed not to you, but to the whole assembly; the guy can hear the slightest murmur of any cellphone turned on.

  8. He will also ask you to open your mouth wide, direct a flashlight into your oral cavity and look in without moving his head near, maybe similarly ask you to put out your tongue or move it to the palate.

  9. If necessary he will do some palpating, contact of fingers with slight pressure on your body surface for more exact probing - no, no stripping whatsoever on your part.

  10. He will explain to you in his English what’s your trouble and where, in the lungs, in the stomach, in the heart, in the kidneys, in the bones, etc.

  11. Now the prescription – and I forgot to tell you guys, make sure you get a guy who writes his prescription in Chinese, that’s the real Chinese medicine practitioner, not one of those aping Chinese doctors – he will ask you whether you prefer herbs or tablets, pills, capsules (there are such in the standard Chinese apothecary’s shop, OK, drugstore); if you tell him to decide for you, he will recommend herbs.

  12. He will write the herbs you are to buy from the Chinese apothecary, the kinds, the quantity of each, and the times you are to take them.

  13. He might also give you some papers on diet and simple directions for healthy life, prepared by himself with the help of some English writing Chinese; that’s included in the consultation fee of $20. (I don’t take those diet directives very seriously and not extensively or comprehensively, though.)

  14. You proceed to the nearest or most convenient standard Chinese apothecary’s shop, and ask for the herbs described in the prescription; the guy there will get them together and pack them into separate bags each to be boiled for each serving. And surprise of surprises, at least for me and others of my acquaintance, the herbs cost so very very little compared to medicine from Western pharmaceutical manufacturers.

  15. Instruction for brewing the herbs: use porcelain cooking vessel or glass, no metallic vessels. Why? chemical interactions between the herbs and the metals might spoil the virtue of the brew. Right? Elementary, Watson!

  16. Take the brew once or twice a day, morning and evening. I brew my herbs two or more times until the flavor is already weak.

  17. By the way, my Chinese doctor doesn’t keep any records. You go back to him with the prescription he gave you the last time; that’s how he keeps track of your complaints.

My general impression: Chinese medicine works slowly; for quick fast relief, if relief is available, you have got to go to Western medicine. In emergency cases, Western medicine is indispensable. When surgical intervention is needed, you have no choice but Western medicine; for example, a busted appendicitis.

But if your trouble is one that Western medicine or doctors don’t seem to be able to help, try the Chinese herbalists. Also in non-life-threatening situations, and you want to save money and keep away a lot of unwanted side effects known or unknown, try the Chinese herbalists. But watch out for quack Chinese drugs and quack Chinese scam doctors.

Are the healings obtained by Chinese medicine purely random beneficial occurrences? I think it would be a very biased person and definitely unscientific to keep to that kind of an attitude. What I would really like to see are genuine statistical studies of Chinese medicine successes and then very objective attempts at scientific explanations.
Susma Rio Sep

This is an advertisement, not a question. You’re saying “It works; tell me how”, when the real question is “Does it work?”

I’d say the jury is on on various “Chinese Medicine” treatments for impotence. If they worked, Chinese men wouldn’t be so willing to pay more for Viagra!

I don’t think the judge is going to be pleased when he hears about this.

Dear Ray:

Please read my post again, thoroughly and carefully and thoughtfully.


Susma Rio Sep

I’ve never done the Chinese medicine thing myself, but have friends (and my mom) who have and are happy with the results.

The closest I ever got myself was an odd situation; I had a really bad bunch of leg fractures, which even after surgery and several months, were just not healing. My boyfriend at the time was a massage therapist, and he was reading a book one night on Chinese massage, particularly for fractures.

Yes, you read that right: massage for fractures. If you think about it, it’s really not such a crazy idea, provided the bone fragments are held firmly in place; even my ortho surgeon agreed. Apparently the usual problem with the type of fracture I had (tibula/fibula, just above the ankle) ist hat sometimes they don’t want to heal because the circulation in that area is frequently not so good, so new bone formation is difficult to promote. So anything that will stimulate the circulation (and massage falls into this category) is a good thing.

I couldn’t talk my ex into doing massage (the bone fragments were solidly anchored with a plate, screws, and an external fixator - basically, I spent six months as a human shish kabob), because it freaked him out; he was afraid he’d hurt me. But the concept led to a bunch of medical journal research, discussions with my doc (the alternative was bone graft surgery, a prospect which didn’t thrill me at all), and eventually to a round of treatment with an electrical bone growth stimulator. This noninvasive device (I wore it for 10 hours/day strapped around the fracture site, with a battery pack around my waist; between that and the pins going through my ankle, I really looked like a freak) basically created an electromagnetic field around the fracture site(s), which stimulated bone growth.

I don’t know whether anyone understands the bone growth mechanism entirely, but all I know is that after healing basically notat all for 3 months, I started with the stimular, and after another couple of months I had grown enough bone that the grafting surgery was no longer necessary and my doc was able to remove the fixator (I still have the internal plate). So there was a grain of truth at the very least to that one principle of Chinese medicine.

Dear Eva:

The thing that got you going into new bone cells growth is the reading by your ex about Chinese massage on bone fractures, in that you and your doctors started on the road of stimulating the blood circulation in the bone locations where the breakage occurred. Do I get you right, even in my non-technical language? Well, congratulations. Of course, you never really had any bone fracture massage from any Chinese masseur; that’s correct?

I must commend your ex also for his curiosity to pick up some reading on Chinese bone fracture massage, whatever his being I assume trained in Western massage principles and practices. And I wished all people would also have his kind of inquisitiveness, if for no other reason than to exercise one’s brain cells in opening up to new or different views.

Before anything else, I am not pushing this thing about Chinese medicine for any kind of self-interest motive on my part. I am just doing this thread for anyone who might have exhausted Western medicine, and still hasn’t found any cure or relief for pain, ache, discomfort, stiff neck, restricted movement, arm paralysis, eyelid drooping, blood trace in urine, etc., giving him the suggestion that he try Chinese medicine, and providing tips how to get the serious practitioners.

Actually my purpose is to get the medical researchers here to give me some explanations on the successes if genuine of these practitioners of Chinese medicine. Now, those of you here who are possessed of some ideas on how Chinese medicine pulls off its ‘tricks’, you are also welcome to share with me your ideas or suspicions. My invitation is addressed mainly to critical thinkers and at the same time real aficionados of science, to come up with intelligent, rational, logical, and yes scientific explanations.

When I read explanations from Chinese medicine writers, I am I must confess at a loss in most instances; because the language is not rational enough to my taste and custom. For example, on the detection of blood pulsation, I read years ago that Chinese medicine has classified some several hundreds of pulse pace and speed and manner or of whatever description. Try this characterization of a blood cruise: like a horse ready for battle, like a farmer after a heavy day’s work (I am making up these similarities, but you get the picture). Yet, I must admit I have not done enough reading to qualify myself as having read a lot.

If anyone here knows of any earnest studies of Chinese medicine done in a completely scientifically unbiased point of departure, I shall be most appreciative.

Susma Rio Sep

This is my last contribution to this thread.

I was thinking that among Dopers here there might be some who are possessed of unrestrained curiosity and have training in medical research work that is open-ended in all directions. I seem to feel now that no Dopers fit such a description, or at least possess an attitude cognate to the description. A catastrophe, seeing that our mentor here, Cecil Adams, is in the fight against ignorance.

I did some surfing of Chinese medicine in the WWW, and I think the statement reproduced below from one site is very informative to me. My trouble in trying to understand Chinese medicine is precisely due to my Western science mind.

So, for me Chinese medicine is not within my understanding unless and until I have mastered the peculiar world of Chinese medicine concepts and principles, expounded in Chinese imagery language, which are not scientific as science is understood in the Western mind.

Nonetheless, I do still – and I do recommend Chinese medicine (and please, this is not an advertisement, but a purely humanitarian gesture from my part addressed to anyone suffering any medical complaint which has not found relief from Western medicine and doctors) –- consult and benefit from Chinese medicine, with the caveats nonetheless which I placed in my first post. My reasons are economy, safety, and efficacy – again with the caveats I placed in my first post.

Good luck.

Susma Rio Sep

PS: I will try repeatedly (hoping to contact him directly) to challenge Cecil Adams to give us the straight dope on Chinese medicine; and I will tell him that he is not worthy of his reputation, unless and until he does go into a straight dope treatment of Chinese medicine.

For Pete’s sake there are dozens of articles every year on Chinese medicine in various medical journals. There is even a Journal of Asian Medicine’ or similar that is considered respectable enough and that is dedicated to this subject. These aren’t hidden, any PubMed search at yourl ocal library will turn them up.

Go and have a look and make up you own mind. Do you need Cecil or someone else to tell you what the facts are on everything?

Cecil Adams does deliver the straight dope better, in my opinion and experience.


Susma Rio Sep

Perhaps the lack of response is, as I said, down to the bias of the question. There are plenty of references to studies - for instance, at the foot of this page. But you’re clearly only interested in studies that support your belief that it works: statistical studies of successes are by definition not statistical studies. Cecil did have a column on acupuncture which briefly mentions a BMJ review of Chinese studies of traditional Chinese medicine; the conclusion was that these studies tended to be statistically dodgy (lack of controls, insufficient safeguards against bias, etc).

Thatis a very constructive and positive feedback, Ray. Thanks.

Susma Rio Sep

I had an experience somewhat akin to Eva Luna’s. I had what was eventually diagnosed as a vascular necrosis of the sesamoid bones of the foot. (This diagnosis came perhaps eight months after I started having significant pain in the ball of my foot, after many hours on my part in medical libraries searching through literature. I eventually found an article with example X-rays and bone scans that were remarkably similar to my own). It appeared that I had probably injured a blood vessel due to repetitive stress from dancing. Without sufficient oxygen, the bone was progressively dying. The medical literature suggested that surgery to remove the sesamoid bone was the only treatment for the pain, but that this invariably resulted in deformity of the foot (the big toe sticks straight up in the air).

A few weeks before we figured out a diagnosis, I had started seeing an acupuncturist, hoping for pain relief. He gave me a concoction of herbs (in pill form) that was designed to “warm” the body, and also directed me to put adhesive patches containing cayenne pepper on the affected site. I think the herbs and patches are most likely what actually stimulated circulation in the area and started me healing. My X-rays were getting progressively more mottled and faint; then they started getting denser again, with no other change in my treatment. In another eight weeks, my feet matched again when we did a bone scan.

(I know that the active ingredient in cayenne is used to treat arthritis by Western doctors now. I don’t know if they think it works by vascular stimulation or what.)

You lied.

I am reading the report of Cecil. But, please everyone here who is interested in this thread, I am not propounding anything but simply asking for you feedbacks, in your capacity as critical thinkers and maybe possessed of some medical research training.

This forum is not about opinions? Most answers to questions here are as a matter of careful examination opinions.

I must admit that I do have a personal attachment or sympathy for Chinese medicine, in the same way I have a personal sympathy for faith-healing; provided they do get some good done however it is done, however briefly the effect; and every important most specially if conventional medicine has not been effective, and these non-conventional treatments and materials are economical and harmless – make sure they are harmless, though.

Susma Rio Sep

I’ll venture a guess that the “Chinese Medicine” that works does so according to “Western-based” theories of disease; Specific molecules interact with receptors/enzymes in a way to inhibit or intensify biochemical pathways/cascades. Anything else is wishful thinking, serendipity, placebo effect, “nocebo effect,” or, well, just plain bullshit.

As someone (it was the French, I think) put it, “You can take medicine for a cold and be cured in two weeks. Or you can do nothing and get better in fourteen days.”


Correct. This forum is not about opinions. This forum is about factual answers.

Examples of factual answers are things like: 42; Sacramento; Yes, but only at night; the sum of the squares of the remaining sides; etc…

Dear Moriah:

I didn’t lie. I changed my mind. Only critical thinkers change their mind, and people posssessed of genuine humility and a recipiency to learn. Haven’t I said several times in these forums here that change is the essence of learning – and sad, also unlearning.


Susma Rio Sep

Dear ENugent:

Your account of course is not an adequate endorsement of Chinese medicine; one witness does not make up convincing proof.

On the other hand, had you gone through the surgical intervention, you would have ended up worse; whereas you have in fact gotten well with the Chinese medical measure you accepted.

I will just say this: if you are not in a death-threatening situation, and you have to choose between an expensive and not certainly foolproof treatment from conventional medicine; then try Chinese medicine or any other medicine provided it is economical, harmless, and just maybe efficacious, at least others have benefitted.

The case of ENugent seems to have met the above criteria.

Susma Rio Sep

Dear bizzwire:

I also have suspicions similar to the explanations you give about how Chinese medicine appears to work.

Yet, in cases where it works for people who are satisfied, the practitioners seem to have by skill or by some happy chance come to successful cure from their diagnosis done in their own ways, and with the right prescription of substances which turn out to be effective, owing to the pharmaceutical chemicals present in them.

Another explanation of so-called successes of Chinese medicine is that the disease has run its course; conventional medicine tells us also most or a lot of diseases simply run their course – if the subject doesn’t die in the meantime.

Another explanation: the subject had been using conventional medicine and treatment, then the Chinese practitioner gets the credit for being the last to attend to the subject – when the conventional medical substances and procedures have finally arrived at their efficacious term.

Another explanation: the Chinese practitioners simply without knowing it stimulate or catalyze the body’s own curative powers to action, whatever their mumbo-jumbo materials and posturings.

Well, there are a lot of possible explanations which make sense to me. But we still have to really fathom the phenomena of successes in a scientific manner so that we can utilize Chinese medicine on a rational basis in accordance with Western science, which I for one maintain is THE SCIENCE.

Susma Rio Sep