Symptoms & disease
TCM can be difficult for western researchers to study because its treatments are often complex and are based on ideas very different from those of modern Western medicine.
It is better to use TCM herbal remedies under the supervision of your health care provider or a professional trained in herbal medicine than to try to treat yourself.
Here I am going to talk about the basic principles in treatment of internal diseases in general first before I go into specific diseases:
Firstly, I need to stress that TCM takes great emphasis of the human body as one systematic universe in which different organs work to support each other to maintain health.
Information of a patient is collected by four basic examinations: observation, listening, asking and pulse-feeling. A diagnosis with pathological methods with these four basic examinations is fundamental in determining the nature of the disease and its symptoms. And treatment is based on a complete understanding of these factors.
To put in simple, in treatment, a TCM doctor not only relies on the symptoms to make his judgment, he shall also take into consideration the patient’s overall conditions, including family history, lifestyle and living environment.
Secondly, a TCM doctor shall look into the clinical features of a disease in general as well as specific pathological characteristics. He should understand the development of disease and possible changes in each individual patient.
When it comes to internal diseases, there are two main categories of causes: disease by weather change and disease by internal injuries. Weather change is taken as external causes.
By external causes, we refer to yin and yang, cold or hot, negative or positive, excess or deficiency. We look at how development of the disease breaks into the outer defense by qi, how it affects the body liquids and blood. A diagnosis by looking at the Triple Warmers is also included. We will talk about the Triple Warmers in future.
By internal causes, we look at how an internal injury affects the functions of the lungs to regulate the energy flow, how it affects the functions of the spleen and stomach in digestion, how it affects the functions of the heart in regulating the blood, how it affects the liver in negative terms, how it affects the kidney with its regenerating functions, etc.
Thirdly, a TCM doctor differentiates the disease from symptoms. A disease can have many symptoms. Different diseases may have similar symptoms. Like catching a cold, a patient may have been affected by winter cold or summer heat and thus shows different symptoms. For a cold caused by winter cold, a patient may show symptoms of excess or symptoms of deficiency because of a strong or weak nature of the patient.
The diagnosis of a disease and analysis of its symptoms support each other. A TCM doctor may have an understanding of the symptoms first, before working to determine which disease the patient may have carried. He may check the general symptoms of a disease first, then work to see if the patient’s symptoms feed into that category.
In TCM, some of the diseases are named on the basis of main symptoms, and this reflects the guiding principle of “same disease with different treatments” and “different diseases with same treatment”.
Some symptoms are treated the same in TCM as in western medicine, like cough. Coughing is a main symptom in colds, asthma, and tuberculosis. Like stomach ache, that is the main symptom in digestive ulcer, gastritis, and stomach cramps. The main symptoms are the focus of a disease. Even though we cannot determine what disease the patient may have carried, we can still work out a solution to tackle the main symptoms first.
The determination of disease is necessary on the basis of symptoms, because it helps a doctor’s understanding of the patient’s conditions in a broader picture. It helps a doctor to foresee the development of the disease and its possible cure or no cure. Symptoms are not equal to disease. For instance, stomach ache is seen in digestive ulcer, it is also seen in gastritis. But digestive ulcer may also cause vomiting or bleeding.
Guiding Principles in Treatment
- Regulate overall balance
The human body has five main organs that form different systems, like respiratory system, digestive system, urinary system, or reproductive system, etc. They all work together to form a greater system. These systems, large or small, need a harmony to stay healthy, the balance of yin and yang.
TCM use therapies to regulate the yin and yang, striving for a balance between them. When there is an excess in either the yin or yang factor, we take the extra amount away. When there is a deficiency, or something that is not enough, we add things to increase the amount.
Measures for regulation must stop once a balance has been obtained. For example, when we use cold herbs to clear away the heat, be cautious not to overdo it and cause damage to the yin factor. And when we regulate the spleen with dry herbs, remember not to harm the stomach that needs a moisture environment.
- Study symptoms and their clinical features
Symptoms must be carefully studied together with clinical developments. Each disease has its pathological characteristics and targeted therapies. Different symptoms require different methods of treatment. For example headache as a symptom, it may be caused by heat wind or cold wind, by internal injury that causes the liver heat, congestion of phlegm, stagnation of blood, etc. The root causes need to be carefully studied.
- Decide what is urgent and what is not
When a patient is bleeding, he may have suffered from an external injury or internal disease. The urgent thing is to stop the bleeding, and find out the root causes later. For an urgency, we deal with the apparent symptoms first; for a complete cure, we are tackling the disease and its root causes.
For a patient with floating with a swollen abdomen and difficulty with breathing, we try to take away excess liquid inside his body first; later we work to nourish his spleen and liver to restore his digestive system.
Sometimes we need to deal with the urgent and the not-urgent at the same time. For example “edema”, the abnormal accumulation of fluid in certain tissues within the body, which causes coughing, fullness in chest, kidney pain or urinal problem, we shall deal with the kidney deficiency and how the lungs have been infected with windy cold.
- Monitor the development of a disease
It is important to monitor the progress of a disease, the stages of development and how different symptoms occur as a result of clinical treatment.
For internal disease, strong formulas of herbs may not be good at the early stage. But as the disease is getting worse, strong formulas are necessary, but they should be used with a lot of attention.
- Apply appropriate therapies to different conditions
The occurrence of disease is affected by many conditions: weather changes, living environment, sex and age of the patient, and many others. Acupuncture, cupping, massage, and herbal formulas are used differently for different conditions.
- Prescribe the best formula for the symptoms
Always work for the best solution to health problem. A TCM doctor must be open-minded and always open to better options. Better options often mean learning from experience or other doctors, including western medicine.
- Take prevention measures
Precaution not only means keeping a healthy lifestyle and improves living standards to prevent the occurrence of disease. It also means measures taken to prevent minor illness developing into severe disease.
In TCM practice, we have a saying that “when you see a disease start in the liver, knowing that it may spread to the spleen, you shall build a defense at the spleen first.” This is precaution.
- Consider the importance of care after recovery
Even when a patient recovers from a disease, the problem may return in few months or in two years. So after-care is very important to prevent the return.
This after-care is both the responsibility of a doctor as well as the patient himself. The doctor shall warm the patient of ignorance and advise him of taking medicine regularly. The patient or his family members should be taught to monitor his own health, detecting symptoms earlier by past experience.
We will talk about individual disease next time.
See you later.