Beyond Needles & Herbs: 5 Favorite Therapies from Chinese Medicine
by Antonia Balfour, L.Ac.
When people ask me what I do for a living, most often I answer, “I’m an acupuncturist”. If I feel more talkative, I may say, “I’m an acupuncturist and herbalist.” A more accurate answer would actually be, “I’m a practitioner of Chinese medicine.” Chinese medicine is an intricate system of healthcare that goes well beyond acupuncture and herbs. A variety of modalities used together heal the body, mind, and spirit to restore homeostasis and wellness.
Here are five of my current favorite healing modalities that go beyond acupuncture and herbal medicine.
In Chinese, the term for acupuncture is “Zhen Jiu.” Literally translated, this means “needles and moxibustion.”
In moxibustion, the leaves of the Chinese herb mugwort are dried and then burned at specific acupuncture points. There are various ways to administer moxibustion. It can be rolled up into a cigar-like stick which doesn’t touch the skin itself, but is held in one place, rotated in circles, or ‘pecked’ in a motion similar to a sparrow pecking at food over the area of an acupuncture point. Rolls of “moxa” can be put at the end of acupuncture needles and burned. Or moxa pads which adhere directly to the skin at specific acupuncture points can have moxa burned on top of them. The moxa transfers warmth deeply into the acupuncture point and is used to activate and move energy, as well as to warm points when cold is a factor in a given condition.
Moxibustion is frequently used alongside acupuncture for conditions ranging from asthma to arthritis. Certain types of pain respond well to moxibustion, as well as certain patterns of infertility. It’s well known as a treatment for turning breech babies, and is also used in cases of excessive menstrual bleeding.
Cupping is most commonly associated with Chinese medicine, but it has actually been used in cultures across the world for many years. It has roots from Greece to Russia, Vietnam to Iran. Islamic traditional medicine uses a form of cupping as does Eastern European Jewish folk medicine. There are many styles and techniques of cupping, all of which use suction in cups to draw energy, blood, and fluids to the surface to promote circulation. In Chinese medicine, the cups can stay in one place over specific acupuncture points or a sliding technique may be used with massage oil to move the cups around the back. In “flash” cupping, a cup will be repeatedly applied to one area for less than a second. The suction comes from a vacuum created by heating the air in the cup and placing the cup flush against the skin of the back. The intensity of suction used will vary, but is always adjusted for the comfort level of each patient. Most people find the suction to be moderate and quite comfortable feeling.
Cupping is most commonly used to treat coughs, asthma, and symptoms of the common cold. It can also be used for muscle aches and pain, especially back pain. Sliding cupping, in particular, leaves the muscles of the back relaxed and opens up movement and motility. Most people find cupping to be a wonderfully relaxing, comfortable, and effective treatment. Like massage, cupping can also be used to relieve stress, tension, and lower blood pressure.
The Seven-Star needle is a single needle with seven small prongs at the end. It is used with a gentle and rapid tapping motion which actually feels relaxing during treatment. It may cause slight discomfort directly on the skin, so it’s important for the patient to let the practitioner know about any uncomfortable feeling. For those with sensitive skin, it may cause mild redness or rash which will usually resolve quickly. It is used in the treatment of peripheral neuropathy, plantar fascitis, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and arthritis. The Seven-Star needle can also be known as a Plum-Blossom needle.
TOPICAL LINIMENTS & OINTMENTS
Topical herbal liniments and ointments used in Chinese medicine vary according to the specific symptoms each patient experiences. Some herbal liniments include cooling herbs like mint which may be used for hot, red, swollen joints that are painful and inflamed. In contrast, if joint pain feels cold to the touch with swelling that gets worse in cold weather, liniments including warming herbs like cinnamon will be chosen. Topical therapies are popularly used in Chinese medicine to massage into muscles for back pain and apply to joints for arthritis. For ankle sprains, research shows that sprains treated with herbal ointments and acupuncture within 48 hours of injury heal significantly faster than those left untreated. Topical herbal tinctures are also used for acne, psoriasis, nail fungus, hemorrhoids, and burns.
In contrast to traditional acupuncture which uses needles to initiate healing, laser acupuncture stimulates acupuncture points with beams of light. Light beams of varied colors penetrate the points depending on the depth and density of tissue in the area. The lasers used are “cold lasers” resulting in painless treatment that poses no risk for infection. Laser acupuncture is effectively used for pain such as joint and muscle pain, or migraines and headaches. Lasers are used to harmonize emotional health in cases of anxiety, depression, or trauma. Clinical research studies show lasers to be particularly effective at healing skin in cases of wounds, sores, or acne. Additionally, it is used to restore healthy breathing in cases of allergies or asthma.
As a complete system of healing, Chinese medicine encompasses acupuncture, herbal medicine, diet, exercise, and a variety of additional modalities to restore health and bring balance to patients. These treatments can be used on their own, or in combination to bring whole health and wellness.