This Midwestern Acupuncturist Advocates for a Blend of Eastern & Western Medicine, and Tells you how to do the Same
Western medicine has proven to be the most useful medical framework for emergency and acute care, whereas Eastern alternatives are left to pick up the pieces of its framework in cases of chronic illness and undiagnosed ailments. Patients often only resort to alternative medicine as a last attempt, but it’s meant to be used preventatively, as a means to promote optimal health. We need to find the middle ground between feeling hopeless and unheard in our experiences with Western medicine, and the pure desperation that brings us to a “woo-woo” alternative medicine practitioner.
So how do we bridge the gap between the holistic health view of Eastern Medicine and the reductionism of Western medicine? In today’s political climate, where healthcare policy is ever changing and often extremely expensive, the question is increasingly relevant.
The answer? It lies in patient advocacy and medical integration.
Western and Eastern medicine both serve their purpose, and yet they’re rarely integrated into our healthcare system. As an Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist, I specialize in supporting the concept of the body as an ecosystem, rather than a collection of separate compartments. Such a holistic perspective is extremely useful in the treatment of chronic conditions that are often beyond the scope of purely Western practices. But would it be possible to see medical integration as beneficial even in cases of acute care? The answer is, yes! In fact, it’s in acute care where integration should start.
In Fall 2015, I was in a minor bike accident in which I shattered a bone in my left wrist. As an acupuncturist, the function of my hands is my livelihood, so I was determined to exercise all the tools at my disposal to heal quickly as well as avoid surgery and loss of income.
Unfortunately I had broken one of the hardest bones to heal: the scaphoid. The scaphoid is a small bone in the wrist joint that gets very little blood flow. In almost 85% of such cases the lack of blood causes the bone to die and replacement with an artificial joint is necessary.
Despite the typical speed of allopathic care in such acute situations, it took two weeks before my wrist was confirmed as broken and then casted. I started my care with an orthopedic surgeon. To fast forward through the details of those negligent first two weeks, I’ll jump to the night after I was finally casted.
Losing feeling in my fingers, I spent the night at the ER waiting for the cast to be removed. When the ER doctor saw the original cast she was appalled by the sloppy workmanship, by how tight the cast was set, and that it was missing the most essential piece to cast for a scaphoid break – the thumb casting. She confirmed my suspicion that the doctor’s work was negligent practice and far below standard care. An all-too-familiar problem of Westernized care, I was being treated by a surgeon for a problem that required knowledge of natural healing methods. If I hadn’t gone in to get the cast removed I could have had nerve damage or worse, lost the functioning of my fingers. Despite the initial feelings that I was being overly dramatic by going to the ER for help, I was glad I had trusted what my body was telling me and decided to advocate for my healing process.
At that point, I transferred to a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). This is a doctor who has received equivalent medical training to an MD, but has also chosen additional training in the integration of the patient’s perspective. It was at this point that the healing experience turned around.
The D.O. noted that the average healing process for this type of break takes at least nine months. After that time a determination is made about whether the bone has healed adequately on its own or if there is further need for surgery. In addition, there is added recovery time for physical therapy and rest of the joint. As a result, most cases take upwards of a year to achieve full recovery.
Fortunately, with the integration of both Western and Eastern medicine I was able to get that healing time down to only two-and-a half months! The quickest the D.O. wrist specialist had ever seen anyone recover from a scaphoid break.
Here’s how I integrated the two systems of medicine.
Immediately after the break, I started applying a Chinese herbal tincture to increase blood flow to the wrist and reduce inflammation, which significantly helped my pain levels. During that time I researched something called a zipper cast, which allows patients to take their cast off for special purposes. This is not a traditional casting measure for the scaphoid and again, I had to stand firm and advocate for what I felt would be best for my body. I explained to my D.O. how important it was to me to be able to include Eastern medicine – acupuncture, herbs, and manual stimulation – during my healing process.
It just made sense to me – if a break doesn’t heal because of the lack of nutrients and blood flow, then binding and immobilizing it doesn’t seem like an efficient solution when used alone. So I did everything possible to utilize my knowledge of Eastern medicine and everyday common sense. I loofah-ed the skin to create blood flow and stimulate the lymphatic system, I did acupuncture on the wrist, hand and fingers two times a day, took bone building Chinese herbs internally, and soaked the wrist once a day in Chinese herbal tinctures that promote blood flow and healing. I also continued my yoga practice, and did visualizations of the bone healing and my wrist and hand working again.
It was a lot – and was a lot to commit to – but, since the use of my hand and wrist is crucial to my profession, I was willing to do the work. It wasn’t easy, and I am lucky to have the skills to provide acupuncture treatments at home. That being said, all of the other steps I took were home-based modalities and herbal prescriptions accessible to anyone. Receiving acupuncture treatments a few times a week would have sufficed to significantly decrease the healing time. When receiving acupuncture at a community clinic, the treatments typically range between $15-20, which makes it a more affordable option to most individuals than the cost of surgery, and the time spent away from work.
The speed of the healing felt surreal, and it was completely due to the integration of Eastern and Western medical practices. I couldn’t have done this without both modalities.
Through the injury I experienced the exhaustion and frustration of being a patient. It was difficult to advocate for myself; I felt like I was arguing or doing something “wrong” when I stated my needs. But the experience solidified both the importance of patient advocacy and the healing potential found when utilizing all our tools: Eastern, Western, and personal.
Patient advocacy and medical integration, applied to a combined approach of Eastern and Western medicine, can be the key to swifter, more comprehensive healing for each of us.
Emma Penelope is a licensed acupuncturist and freelance writer from Minneapolis. Growing up with a father who was a poet, and a mother who was a painter, Emma has found artistic outlets to be an integral part of life. Publications include PauseAcupuncture, JustBeParenting Magazine, the Matador Review, and SecondChanceTravel. She has spent a significant portion of her life traveling and living in different countries around the world in the hopes of sharing cross-cultural perspectives with global readers.
Accompanying Art: “Yellow Studio,” watercolor 2016, by Livien Yin