Good things happen when East meets West — and not just in cuisine. Blending Eastern and Western approaches to medicine can help people with chronic pain find relief.
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“Eastern and Western medicine have the same goals, to ease pain and improve function,” says Cleveland Clinic’s Hong Shen, MD, who is board-certified in pain management as well as physical medicine and rehabilitation. She also has advanced training in acupuncture. “Outcomes are better when you combine both approaches.”
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The West thinks of medicine as a way of dealing with disease, explains Dr. Shen. The East thinks of medicine more holistically, considering how a whole person (mind, body and spirit) interacts with his or her environments. Health isn’t merely the absence of disease but the presence of harmony in life.
Also different are the methods used to diagnose and treat disease, such as chronic pain.
Western physicians will ask about a patient’s medical history and conduct a physical exam. They’ll diagnose pain based on structural problems, possibly with the help of X-rays or other imaging. Western treatments may include:
- Physical therapy
- Pain medication
- Interventional therapies (e.g., nerve blocks, spinal cord stimulator implants)
- Psychological counseling
“Eastern practitioners observe the pulse, tongue, eyes and color,” says Dr. Shen. “They palpate, look, ask, smell and listen. Then they diagnose disharmonies, defined by eight fundamental patterns: interior, exterior, heat, cold, excess, deficiency, yin and yang.”
Eastern treatment for chronic pain may include these and other methods:
- Mind/body exercise (e.g., tai chi, yoga)
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If you deal with chronic pain, Western medicine can stop the pain fast with medication or interventional therapy. However, Eastern medicine can provide a longer-lasting solution to the underlying problem. That’s why Dr. Shen recommends both.
“For example, an epidural steroid injection will work very fast and very well for sciatic pain,” says Dr. Shen. “But the pain may return unless you also address the root issues — possibly obesity, nutritional status, emotional stress or toxins.”
Eastern medicine works much slower than Western medicine, she notes. It addresses many factors that develop over time, such as diet, lifestyle habits and bacterial imbalance.
Try these Eastern treatments first
When introducing Eastern treatments for chronic pain, Dr. Shen first recommends:
- Nutrition. “I think nutrition is most important,” she says. “Food is medicine. It can create pain or relieve pain.” Dr. Shen collects a dietary history from each patient and then suggests how to improve their well-being by improving what they eat. She often proposes an anti-inflammatory diet.
- Exercise. “Exercise is proven to reduce chronic pain,” says Dr. Shen. “I recommend patients start with 30 minutes of moderate walking each day. Then add yoga.”
- Meditation. “Meditation isn’t complicated,” says Dr. Shen. “Pain relief can come from easy breathing exercises.”
Based on each patient’s performance, Dr. Shen will supplement with other Eastern treatments, including acupuncture — or massage, if the patient is afraid of needles.
Many patients respond well to a combination of massage, acupuncture, yoga and meditation.
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Room for both East and West
“Some patients try either Western or Eastern treatments first, and then add the other as needed,” says Dr. Shen. “But there is room for both methods. The best results often happen when the two intersect.”