Indonesia Expat
Charities Observations

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Healthcare

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Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Who hasn’t heard and probably used this first line of Kipling’s Ballad of East and West. But who has read the full text? And who has understood that it does not mean, as typically inferred, that the opinions and practices observed at the opposing geographic points of the compass will never meet?

The more correct interpretation is that irrespective of accidents of birth, when two strong entities meet and respect each other, integrity and character are the only criteria for mutual acceptance and understanding.

Misunderstanding, and even mistrust of each other’s methods, can be clearly seen in the mutual appraisal of eastern and western approaches to medical science. Until recently, both sides have shown little inclination to cooperate – or even listen to each other with an open mind. A real waste, because when mutually acknowledging the other’s achievements and strong points, the two sciences could bring about a symbiosis.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the concepts of balancing yin and yang. Yin is the passive female principle of the universe, portrayed as sustaining and associated with earth. Yang is the active male and creative principle, associated with heaven. According to TCM, ill health is caused by a disturbance of the yin and yang balance, which in turn affects the flow of energy which is called Qi (pronounced chee) along the body’s meridians. Acupuncture (inserting fine needles into the skin at certain points along the meridians) and herbal remedies aim at restoring the balance.

Li Shi-Zhen in his “Grand Materia Medica” of 1596 identified 1,173 plants, 444 minerals and 275 animals from which he formulated more than 11,000 preparations for ailments ranging from back aches to bronchitis – a truly amazing feat, as the recipes are very specific about the quantity and type of each substance used.

Western medical practitioners do, however, opine that Chinese herbal medicine at the pseudoscience and that its presumed effectiveness can at best be ascribed to the placebo effect.

This negative opinion likely results from the widely reported and decried use of animal parts of endangered species such as rhinos, tigers, turtles, seahorses and bears in certain ‘medical’ potions with questionable effects – rhino horn, for instance, has the same effect as nail clippings (none).

In November of 2006, Merck, a large pharmaceutical company, made a deal with Chi-Med, a Chinese drug company, to develop cancer treatments and consumer health products based on traditional Chinese herbs. Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, also announced plans to open a US$100 million research and development centre in Shanghai.

Regarding acupuncture, the World Health Organization has listed a total of 37 disorders which can benefit from it. Uses can be alleviation of pain to the treatment of allergies and acute bronchitis.

In spite of this, a considerable (but steadily shrinking) number of western medical practitioners still place acupuncture on the list of pseudosciences too.

But with Big Pharma showing a serious interest in Chinese herbs and WHO listing acupuncture as a treatment for a large number of disorders, it would appear that a symbiosis between eastern and western medical science is slowly forming.

Here in Jakarta, this fusion of western medicine and eastern acupuncture and herbal cures has taken shape in Dr. Sisilia Indradjaja. After graduating as a medical doctor from Catholic University Atma Jaya, Jakarta, Indradjaja gained her Master of Herbal Medicine at University of Sydney and developed her knowledge of acupuncture with Dr. Alex Liew, a senior practitioner of Chinese medicine in Adelaide.

“After completing my studies at Atma Jaya and in Sydney, I was fairly sceptical about acupuncture,” Indradjaja told Indonesia Expat. “To diagnose ailments, I was more inclined to follow the scientific approach of western medicine rather than, what I called, the psycho-spiritual ways of acupuncture. But after observing the positive effects of acupuncture I was converted and became an acupuncturist.”

Indradjaja believes that the two approaches need to be integrated. She is a living embodiment of an east-west symbiosis. In her practice she uses medical lab tests together with pulse readings to diagnose a patient’s health – lab results for cholesterol or glucose levels, for example, are used in combination with pulse readings.

Interestingly, there are between 28 and 40 pulse characteristics to diagnose a patient’s whole bio-field.

The differing number indicates that different practitioners disagree on some basic issues, a rather common occurrence among specialists.

As an example of pulse reading, Indradjaja explains that “normal pulse” indicates good Qi and blood. The pulse, both left and right, should be calm, smooth and neither too soft nor too hard. It should be regular and its quality should not change very often or easily. Deep level and rear positions are felt clearly, which indicates that the kidneys are healthy.

On acupuncture, she states, “The art of acupuncture depends on selecting the correct acupoints and inserting the needle at the proper angle and to the right depth. I check the needles’ correct position with pulse reading, a soft pulse should have become stronger, for example,” she clarifies.

“And although western physicians are slowly beginning to believe in acupuncture, they are disinclined to accept the traditional Chinese explanations of how it works, meaning the stimulation of specific acupoints to redirect and balance a patient’s Qi,” said Indradjaja. “Western scientists instead speculate that the needles stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s own morphine-like painkillers. Or that acupuncture releases neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that carry messages between nerve endings. But neither explanation has been proven.”


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