Many of us have delved into China’s most famous traditions of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but it’s difficult to know not only which treatments are effective and safe, but which are suitable for your condition. I practice allopathic Western-style family medicine, but I also trained with many alternative medicine doctors in the hippie enclaves around San Francisco, so I am familiar with these complementary medicines. In my family medicine clinic, I am most comfortable with using some TCM herbs for stomach problems or the common cold. In fact, Western medicine is ineffective for the world’s most common illness – the common cold – and many OTC Chinese herbals, like my favorite cough syrup pipagao, can help relieve these symptoms. I sometimes recommend acupuncture to my patients for pain or headaches, especially if they’ve exhausted Western medical approaches.
I am more open-minded than other Western doctors – but only to a point. I am very strict about using only the strongest evidence-based treatments, both for Western medicine and for TCM. I’ve seen many patients approach alternative medicines with the false belief that TCM has no side effects and can do no harm. Everything we ingest can cause side effects such as allergic reactions or even toxic responses to the many heavy metals and chemicals often found in batches of herbal medicines and dried spices all over the world.
Concerning acupuncture for children, last year the American Academy of Pediatrics published a review that found a mild adverse event rate of 12 percent and a serious complication rate of 1 percent. I don’t consider this a small risk, especially as the proven benefits of acupuncture treatments for children are poorly-documented.
Fortunately, there are a handful of well-respected and objective websites with evidence-based data on TCM. My favorite is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is sponsored by the US National Institute of Health.
Anyone interested in TCM should first visit NCCAM’s website at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/chinesemed and start researching. This same page also has an essential link to “Scientific Literature,” which takes you to all the top research papers listed on Pubmed, a database of all medical journal articles. The Pubmed group’s consumer version at MedlinePlus is also an excellent start for your research; you can find it at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus.
If you want to see a TCM doctor, a few international clinics in Beijing have TCM doctors that speak English. If you speak Chinese, you can also go to Tongrentan (同仁堂)for its supply of herbs, which is probably the safest in China.
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