TCM is a system of medicine whose roots date back at least 2500 years, and is still evolving today. It is a holistic practice which evaluates the whole body, rather than just specific symptoms. Any side effects are rare and extremely minor when compared to conventional treatments, and its diagnostic techniques allow for great precision in treating each individual quite specifically, thus creating treatment plans which are equally precise. In effect, TCM encourages the body to regain its natural balance and therefore acts in a more subtle way than conventional medicine. It has a long and clinically verified history of effective treatment for most types of disease. Finally, it is an understandable and empowering system of treatment which helps patients to understand their disease process and thus gives them the opportunity to participate in their healing process.
Treatment in TCM may include acupuncture; the insertion of very fine needles at key points on the body, which helps to regulate the flow of energy known as Qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Other forms of TCM treatment include (but are not confined to) massage, herbal medicine, and a form of therapeutic exercise called Chi Kung. The patient can also take control of their overall health by following advice on diet, relaxation and exercise.
One of the most salient features of TCM is that it is a holistic form of medicine, which is to say that it always sees any health problem within the overall context of the human being as a whole, including the physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual aspects of the person; indeed it also sees the human being as part of the natural world in which we live, as our health is inextricably bound up with what is going on around us.
To do this TCM developed, over the centuries, a non-technical language and conceptual framework to understand illness; one of the most important concepts within TCM is that of ‘Qi’ (sometimes spelt Chi). Qi is the vital living energy of the human being, which circulates around the body in a number of channels, or meridians. Simplifying somewhat, illness arises when there is a problem with our Qi; either there is not enough of it, or it is not flowing freely, or both. Whilst Qi may still be a foreign concept to some westerners, any Chinese person will understand immediately what Qi is and be able to identify it within their own experience, and any westerner who practices the arts of Qigong (Chi Kung) or Taiji (T’ai Chi) learns this awareness from the start of their studies.
We might be tempted to ask what Qi is from a western point of view. There is a growing body of research, especially from China, which is addressing this task; one aspect of Qi would seem to be bio-electrical, the flow of tiny electrical currents around the body. However, countless generations of Chinese medical practitioners, as well as martial artists, meditators, and others, have worked with Qi without any need to understand it from a western point of view.
So how can TCM help dystonia? To begin with it is worth stressing that TCM treatment is always individualised to each patient. Whether the problem is dystonia, back-pain or the common cold, any course of CM treatment begins with a detailed consultation in which the therapist is interested in finding out not only about the problem itself, but also about every aspect of the patient’s health, from their digestion to their temperament, from how they sleep to the quality of their hearing. Pulse taking also has an important part to play in this process – practitioners of TCM are trained to glean a surprising amount of information from a patient’s pulse, paying attention not only to its rate but to numerous other aspects of the pulse such as its strength, width, smoothness and depth. Similarly examination of the patient’s tongue reveals other useful information.
This process enables the practitioner to get a clear picture of what is happening with the patient’s Qi and how the Qi of the different organ systems are interacting. The symptoms of dystonia are then viewed and understood within this context. To illustrate how this works in practice, consider the following case study:
Melissa came for treatment at the Sean Barkes Clinic for spasmodic torticollis which she had been suffering from for over three years. She suffered from neck and shoulder pain, shaking of the head, inability to move the head, and “sickly” headaches. She was having botox injections every three months, which were helping, but she was keen to discover other ways of moving forward. She also suffered from irregular and heavy periods preceded by pre-menstrual moodiness and cramping pain, and costochondritis (a swelling of a rib in the chest making breathing uncomfortable). She also reported hearing loss in her right ear.
Melissa had a demanding job which involved dealing with angry people and conflict on a daily basis, and having to remain calm and professional throughout. Such a situation is likely to lead to ‘Qi Stagnation’ – when our feelings are unable to find expression, the smooth flow of our Qi is impaired. In Melissa’s case it seemed likely that this tendency to Qi Stagnation was affecting her neck and shoulders in particular, but was also a major factor in her problems around period time – if a woman’s Qi is not flowing freely, the transition from one part of the menstrual cycle to the next is likely to be uncomfortable. The costochondritis also suggests Qi Stagnation affecting the chest. The diagnosis of Qi Stagnation was confirmed by taking Melissa’s pulse, which manifested the quality of what Chinese Medicine calls ‘wiriness’ – the pulse feels tense, a bit like a stretched elastic band. Wiriness in the pulse is more often than not caused by Qi Stagnation.
However, there was rather more to it than this. When asked about her sleep, Melissa reported that she suffered from ‘night terrors’ and woke a lot in the night. In Chinese Medicine the quality of our sleep is closely related to the quality of our blood (which is a somewhat different concept in Chinese Medicine than the western idea of blood.) The fact that Melissa also suffered from dry and gritty eyes, and had ‘floaters’ also suggested her blood was a little depleted. In Chinese Medicine one of the main functions of blood is to nourish the muscles and tendons, and if the blood is depleted these can become tense and inflexible. In Melissa’s case the blood deficiency seemed likely to be due to losing a lot of blood during her period, on top of a weakness in her digestive system that manifested in bloating and feeling tired after meals. Thus a picture was beginning to come together as to the main factors responsible for the torticollis.
Melissa was able to come in twice weekly for treatment, and acupuncture was used to smooth the flow of Qi and strengthen the digestive system. We also gave Melissa some tips on how she could modify her diet to nourish her blood and allow the digestive system to improve its functioning. Melissa reported that she felt a lot more energetic than usual, and her period was less problematic both in the run up to it and the actual bleed itself. After three treatments we began to treat the torticollis directly using one or two acupuncture points on the neck and other points lower down the body on the same meridians, to encourage the Qi to flow more smoothly through the neck and down the body. Occasionally we also used Chinese massage techniques to facilitate this process.
After five weeks of treatment Melissa reported that she felt “normal” for the first time in a long time. Her neck and shoulder pain was considerably reduced and her range of movement increased; her consultant told her that she did not need to continue with the botox injections. Melissa continues to attend for regular acupuncture treatment; whilst she was a little nervous at her first visit, being “terrified of injections”, she got over that very quickly and now enjoys coming for treatment. In her own words:
“As acupuncture treats the whole person, not only is my neck straighter and I now have more movement, I feel much better in myself. My husband keeps commenting on the improvement in my general well-being as well as my neck. I have overcome my fear of needles and as well as acupuncture I have had other Chinese therapies: cupping and gua sha, both specifically on my neck, and both appear to be effective.
I went not expecting a miracle cure. I still don’t have full movement but I have achieved a great improvement in my neck. It has also improved other medical conditions that I have suffered from, and I now enjoy it.”