eastern medicine

The Map of Human Health

On the surface, it was just another typical moment in a chiropractic physician's office. I was walking down the hall from one treatment room where I had just left a patient with an injured knee, to check on another patient who was receiving care for a painful shoulder. But on that short walk down the hall, I was actually walking the long divide between two health care paradigms. While the patient with shoulder problems was receiving what would normally be considered "standard" treatment -- heat, ultrasound and chiropractic manipulation -- the patient with the bum knee had several acupuncture needles inserted around her knee and ankle.

In one room, the basics of applied physiology were being utilized: Heat was being used to perfuse the injured area with blood, bringing with it oxygen, nutrients, and other supplies for healing, and taking away the detritus of repair. Ultrasound was altering the permeability of the cell membranes, allowing the injured tissues to more readily imbibe the blood's bounty. And joint manipulation was restoring normal physiological shape and function to the ligaments surrounding the joint.

But in the other room, a completely different process was apparently taking place: The normal flow of qi, a nebulous "life energy," was being restored. Excess yang, represented by the heat of inflammation, was being quenched by employing the water principle of the body, as water is always used to put out a fire; meanwhile, meridians controlling the patient's earth energy were used to nurture the damaged tissues.

How do I, as a doctor trained in both eastern and western medicine, reconcile these two utterly divergent approaches? One is so clearly logical and wrapped in the science of the west, while the other explodes with image and allegory, as if the needles tell a parable of health in their placement and actions.

And with increasing frequency, I find that I not only combine these disparate therapies in my practice, but in the treatment of singular patients. Some patients receive both chiropractic and acupuncture. Some are treated with eastern herbs and western physiotherapy. Others are treated with western nutrition and acupuncture.

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself," said the poet Walt Whitman. "I am large, and contain multitudes."

Perhaps the best way of uniting these two approaches to human health which do not speak the same language either literally or figuratively is to apply the principles of scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski which can be best summed up by this statement:

The map is not the territory.

Too often, Korzybski argued, we look at a thing and we conceptually "map" it. We assess its shape and weight, its color and texture, and assign those properties to that object, forgetting that it may have other properties of which we are not aware -- or that it may not always have those properties which we have assigned to it.

That's a mouthful, I know. An easier way to understand the concept is to imagine two maps of the same place, for example Ansonia, Connecticut.

One map is a road map.  It clearly shows all the roads in the area, what their names are, and where they go.

The second map is a topographic map. This map does not show the roads so clearly, but it does give us other information that the road map does not. Through the use of contour lines, it shows us the hills and valleys of the terrain, where the swamps are, the steepness of the slopes.

Both maps show us the exact same territory. But they provide us with entirely different types of information.

In the pursuit of understanding, we all too often forget that the theories and hypotheses that we make -- the maps, as it were - are only maps. They are not the territory itself. The map of the human body developed by western medicine is certainly not the only map, nor is it the "true" map. It is merely a map that shows us certain characteristics of that territory. Imagine the arteries and veins as roads, the organs as cities and villages, the nerves as railroad tracks...you get the picture.

The map developed by Traditional Chinese Medicine shows us different features of the human body. Instead of roads and tracks, we see the swamps and the forests, the peaks and the valleys. Entirely different information, but also of great value as I help my patients navigate their way back to health.

Is one more valid than the other? I think it would be the height of arrogance to claim that the western medical map was superior to the eastern. After all, 100 years ago, the eastern map of human functioning was already highly detailed and had been refined for centuries, while western medicine was still scrawling  "here be dragons" on the margins of its crudely-drawn understanding.

I employ both, because I find both to be useful. They help me and my patients reach their destination. And as I continue to proceed along the twin paths of east and west, I find that I can increasingly see one in the other. From the road I see the hills, and from my path in the hills I can hear the hissing of cars on the road. I think -- I hope -- that my patients will be the beneficiaries of this understanding.  As the wise Siddhartha said, "In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true."