The Conceptual Differences between Chinese and Western Medicine

Chinese Medicine versus Western Medicine

Assorted Chinest herbs, some in capsule formIn his book The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, Ted Kaptchuk presents an excellent illustration of the conceptual differences between the Chinese and western medicine models.  He uses the following hypothetical example to distinguish between the thought patterns of the practitioner of Chinese medicine and the practitioner of western medicine.

Consider, if you will, a person who presents his doctor with complaints of stomach pains.  That patient might initially be asked a series of questions designed to determine the nature and possible source of his pain.  If the answers to these questions failed to point to a clear, specific source, a diagnostic test might be carried out; for example, the doctor might order an x-ray of the gastrointestinal tract or perform an endoscopic examination.  Observation of a solitary lesion in the antral region of the stomach would confirm a diagnosis of peptic ulcer. 

The Western Perspective

From the perspective of western medicine, that patient would be viewed as a basically healthy individual with a particular problem – namely, a peptic ulcer.  His problem doesn’t distinguish him in any way; in fact, an estimated 10 percent of the male population in the United States has experienced a peptic ulcer.  In theory, an unlimited number of people could have the same condition, and each would be perceived as belonging to the same large group – essentially healthy people with peptic ulcers.

The Individualized Approach of Chinese Medicine

A practitioner of Chinese medicine might also begin with a series of questions when examining this patient.  Instead of trying to narrow down the cause of the stomach pain to one particular source, however, the practitioner of Chinese medicine would attempt to discover as many sources for the stomach pain as possible by uncovering all of the physiological circumstances that could be surrounding it.  For example, the stomach pain might respond differently to a cold compress than to physical pressure.  It might be relieved by eating, or eating might make it worse.  This particular patient might have a greasy yellow coating on his tongue whereas another patient could have no coating on his tongue whatsoever. 

The Chinese physician would use these characteristics to make a diagnosis unique to this individual patient.  Even though his endoscopic exam might reveal a peptic ulcer, he would not be seen as having the same problem as any other patient with a peptic ulcer.  Yes, a solitary lesion might appear in the antral portion of his stomach, but the conditions surrounding its appearance would be unique to him. 

Theoretically, three different patients with solitary lesions on their stomachs could receive three entirely different diagnoses.  A Chinese physician might diagnose damp heat affecting the spleen in one, deficient Yin affecting the stomach of another, and disharmony of the liver invading the spleen of the third – three different situations calling for three different methods of treatment.

From the standpoint of western medicine, disease is an event that can be separated from the patient.  It is something that the patient has.  Thus, any number of patients can also have the disease and be treated in a similar manner.

In Chinese medicine, however, disease is not viewed as something that a patient has.  It is something that the patient is.  Disease, from the Chinese point of view, is an imbalance in the patient’s being.  There is no isolated, self-contained, separate entity called “disease.”  There is only a whole person whose body functions may be balanced or imbalanced, harmonious or disharmonious.  Understanding the nature of the imbalance is the goal of diagnosis, while restoring balance is the focus of treatment.

Which Model Is Superior?

The answer is “neither.”  We need both western and Chinese medicine.  The sooner we integrate both into a universal approach to healing and treatment, the healthier and wiser we will all be.

To learn more about how you could benefit from an integrated approach to your health, please contact Mosher Health in Poway, serving communities throughout the North County and the rest of San Diego, today.

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