For many of us health is something that we take for granted. We might see our doctor for routine checkups and take a miscellaneous collection of vitamins and supplements; we might even follow an exercise regimen and an eating plan of some sort. But beyond required vaccinations for our children, carrying hand sanitizer around in our cars and purses, and brushing our teeth, for the most part we don’t pay much attention to the idea of preventative medicine. In my experience people are happy to schedule regular appointments to cut and color their hair every six weeks, take their cars in for an oil change every 3000 miles, apply tick and flea preventatives to their dogs and cats every month, but unlikely to pay the same level of consistent attention to maintaining their own health. We almost always wait till we are sick, injured, or scared of one or the other, to help ourselves.
Fortunately Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) takes prevention to heart and it is the foundation of almost every treatment. From the oldest documents it appears that in TCM prevention was highly valued, and in the very old times, the most respected practitioner of medicine was he who could prevent disease in his patients. The idea was to figure out from the patient’s history and constitutional bias what diseases and conditions would most likely afflict them as they went through life, and then to help them live in such a way that those conditions didn’t manifest. In more contemporary terms this project might include strengthening the immune system, assisting homeostasis (the body’s internal balance), and supporting the body’s ability to maintain latency (keeping pathogens already in the body dormant).
Health is not a static state, but rather a dynamic ever-changing balancing act between internal systems, and between the entity as a whole and its environment. The body is constantly monitoring and adjusting to maintain the most favorable balance. Most of these adjustments occur without our conscious participation, or even our notice. Disease occurs when the balance is broken. TCM recognizes that anything in extreme can produce disease. Too much stress or not enough stimulation can have the same result. Stress means any factor that challenges the body’s homeostasis – its ability to balance. Causes of disease can be internal (the five emotions of the Chinese tradition: fear, anger, worry, joy, sadness), external (the six climactic factors: wind, heat, dryness, cold, damp, fire), or other (constitution, overindulgence, overwork, parasites, trauma, poison, incorrect treatment, etc.). Symptoms are evidence of the struggle between the body’s defense systems and the pathogenic factors. The relative strength of the defenses and of the pathogen will determine how strong the symptoms will be.
With this idea of stress as anything that challenges the body’s ability to maintain favorable balance, then the key element in the use of acupuncture as a preventative is stress reduction. Since stress in this sense is not specifically the anxiety caused by the impending deadline at work, but rather the cumulative effects of daily existence – the granola bar lunch, the cat-interrupted sleep, the new running shoes, the cold virus making its way around the office, a medication, the party next Friday night – stress can be physical, mental, emotional or a combination of all three. Stressors can be things that are perceived as positive or negative, or not even noticed; at a certain point the body’s reaction is the same regardless of the flavor of that stress. On a psychological level, everyone has a level of stress at which they function most comfortably. Some people are not happy and fulfilled unless they are spinning seven figurative plates in the air at one time; others are miserable if they have the slightest change in their daily routine. Boredom can be as stressful as too much activity. A person pushed beyond their stress threshold will cease to function efficiently, and like a machine used without thought for regular maintenance, they will begin to show signs of wear. The wear may manifest itself in countless small ways or perhaps more dramatically, as in the loss of the ability to maintain latency in a pathogen that is already present like in Shingles (Herpes Zoster).
Many people have a good sense of what types of conditions they are most vulnerable to. Some people will always find themselves with a sore throat when they get rundown, others will find that their Achilles heel is their digestion, or that their neck is tight and painful when all is not well in their world. What you observe in yourself as the first indicator of overt stress can help you to design an effective preventative care program. For example, if you own your own business and find that by the end of each quarter your back and neck are killing you, this gives you a time-frame and a target for intervention before you become miserable. Taking care of something before it becomes a problem reduces the overall stress burden, improves quality of life, and in some cases can prevent progression to a more painful and potentially serious condition. The idea is always to get ahead of the curve, to dissipate stress and to relieve the system before symptoms of dysfunction occur, in other words, to help your body maintain the most favorable balance possible at any given moment.
Through acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, Chi gung exercises, and various adjunctive therapies, TCM looks to move, regulate, and harmonize Qi. Qi is energy or life force; it exists as a continuum, it can manifest as energy or as matter (think about electrons – tiny units of energy that have mass). It is what animates us, causes growth and development, warms, protects, transforms, contains, and lays down the template for the next generation. Some Qi is inherited – the genetic pattern that comes from our parents. Other Qi is acquired – the stuff that we get from food, water, and air. A combination of the inherited and the acquired is what circulates in our bodies and gets us through the day. Qi can move smoothly, like a great digestive system – regular despite some questionable food choices; or it can get stuck like the hamster-on-the-treadmill circular thoughts that wake us in the middle of the night. Helping to keep Qi moving smoothly and in the correct direction reduces systemic stress and improves function.
An important part of a treatment is the intake discussion. Each time, we ask the same questions about the same systems, with particular attention to problem areas. Although it is repetitive, it is extremely helpful both to the practitioner for diagnostic purposes and for judging efficacy of treatment, but also to the patient, because it helps them pay more attention to bodily functions, get a good grip on what their normal is, and become aware more quickly when something is amiss.
The bottom line is that there is no fountain of youth and as of yet we can’t really get replacement parts, so it really pays to take care of the body, mind, and spirit we’ve got, instead of waiting for catastrophic problems to present. Using acupuncture on a regular basis for preventative care can help you do just that. You take your car in for a tune-up, why not do the same for yourself?