Both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western medicine are complex systems for addressing medical problems. The goal of both systems is to make the patient well. However, for the patient, the means to achieving the goal is very different. One way of viewing the difference is to look at the approach in determining treatment.
“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” is practically a punch line but underscores the approach frequently taken by Western medicine practitioners. If someone has a headache, the response is to “take an aspirin”. With TCM, if someone complains of a headache, the next step is to determine what is causing the headache. There can be a dozen or more reasons for headache, and each has a different treatment protocol.
This symptomatic approach is most apparent in Western medicine’s orientation toward pharmaceuticals. Modern science, technology, and chemistry have provided innumerable advances in available treatments. There are few human conditions that do not have a corresponding pill or injection that can be beneficial in relieving the symptom. However, like the headache, the pain may be relieved but the root cause of the problem may be overlooked and persist. While the targeted symptom has been alleviated, there also may be numerous side effects that result from the treatment.
Pharmaceuticals are designed to create very specific chemical reactions in the body. The science behind these drugs is to target these reactions that result in relieving the designated symptom. Not only is the result predictable for most individuals, but it is also often quickly achieved. Unfortunately, by manipulating the body’s chemistry, other effects aside from the desired one may sometimes occur. In some cases these are permanent changes, and in others the recovery takes a considerable length of time. An example of a pharmaceutical product that contained about two minutes of disclosures of possible side effects, including fatal ones, was a Celebrex commercial from 2007.
The treatment protocol in Traditional Chinese Medicine is designed to treat the underlying root cause of the symptom. Herbal medicine is prescribed to create a change in the body’s current state so that the symptom can be relieved; this can take some time. The effective components of the herbs need to build up in the body, in some cases over a matter of weeks, before the results are achieved. The change is often subtle, and it is not uncommon for a patient to wake up one morning and think, “Hey—that feels better. I guess I didn’t need to take those herbs after all.” This gentle herbal treatment approach also means that if you do have a reaction to the herbs, by stopping the treatment, the body can clear itself fairly easily.
So which treatment approach is best? Treating just the symptoms or diving into a deeper understanding of a subtle TCM approach that can possibly address the root cause of an issue? This is a personal decision and is something that the patient needs to discuss with their doctor and practitioner.