Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks









My Top 10 Favorite Things about Chinese Medicine

by Brian Benjamin Carter, MS, LAc

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine and author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.

In April 2002, I spoke to some 40 prospective students at the Pacific College of Chinese Medicine's Spring Open House. The topic was 'Acupuncture and Herbs.' I decided that the best way to present Chinese Medicine to our profession's future would be to give them my Top 10 Favorite Things about it. People love top 10 lists (actually they seem to love anything that doesn't go on and on and on.)

In the process, I realized (duh!) that I should be promoting Chinese Medicine as a career. So I'm going to turn my speech into an article about the Chinese Medical profession.


The Top 10 List

  1. It's All Connected
  2. It's Mysterious
  3. It Works
  4. It's Simple AND Complex
  5. It's Intuitive AND Intellectual
  6. It's Interactive
  7. It Benefits You Too
  8. It's Traditional and Ancient
  9. It's Theories have Broad Implications
  10. It can be a Lucrative AND Altruistic Career
  11. There are so many Options

Ok, so there are 11. And they're not in any particular order.

My Top 11 Favorite Things about Chinese Medicine


#1: It's All Connected (Holistic Medicine)

If you're interested in Alternative Medicine, you probably have heard this phrase over and over again. What is holistic medicine? Holistic health? What is a holistic veterinarian? Well, I'm not going to speak for everyone... What I can tell you is how Chinese Medicine is a holistic mind body medicine, and by that I mean: it is all connected.

Chinese medicine connects you with your environment. It integrates natural metaphors into its system of diagnosis. Cold weather can cause a cold condition (for example, a "cold" common cold where the mucus is clear and chills are stronger than the fever), and hot weather can cause a hot condition (e.g. a "hot" common cold with sore throat, or a worsening of inflammatory (hot) rheumatoid arthritis).

Chinese medicine connects your mind and body. Or maybe it's better to say: Chinese medicine never disconnected mind and body. After centuries of mind body dualism, western medicine (biomedicine) has only recently begun to bring mind and body back together, most notably in an interesting new science called psychoneuroimmunology. Chinese medicine diagnoses according to patterns (groups of symptoms) and every pattern has implied states of mind and emotion. There are also Chinese constitutional types with their own particular mental and emotional tendencies. These are two pivot points for Traditional Chinese Medicine's holistic mind body approach.

This is the reason I got into Chinese Medicine. A life-changing self-examination led to the realization that hidden parts of my psyche had controlled my thoughts, emotions, and decisions for most of my life. Then I saw that CM also had a way of relating body, mind, and emotion. I thought, "Wow, maybe I can find out more of the hidden things that are keeping me from maximum health, happiness, and effectiveness, and then help people too!"

When you come to see an Chinese Medicine Doctor as a patient, we listen to your symptoms, ask questions, look at your tongue (it's the only muscle we can see and it provides us with clues about the state of your internal organs), take your pulse (not just your heartrate, but 6 positions on each hand that correspond to the state of the 12 major organs), listen to the sound of your voice, how fast you talk, look at the tint of your skin, the quality of your nails, and even note your smell! It's said that the superior physician can diagnose you after just watching you walk into his office. Indeed, some practitioners only have to ask 4 or 5 questions to nail down your pattern and then can predict remarkable things about your health and emotions. The rest of us are still learning; that's why they call it a practice!

Diagnosis is connected to treatment. Once we have a good diagnosis, we know the best food, exercise, lifestyle, herbal formulas, and acupuncture points for you. Biomedicine often has a name for your disease but no treatment; Chinese Medicine can take a look from another angle and find treatments based on your pattern or meridian diagnosis. For every disease, there is a treatment.

#2 - Chinese Medicine is Mysterious.

There are many systems and theories by which we practice CM (Chinese Medicine). They often overlap... 10 practitioners might diagnose the same patient differently. Perhaps 6 of them are just plain wrong- but 3 or 4 of them could help. There's more than one answer? That challenges the western mind. This doesn't mean there's more than one reality- just more than one perspective on it.

Real people are complex- they could have a pain, emotional problems, and a digestive complaint at the same time. Sometimes, treating one aspect cures another one. Other times, all must be taken into account for there to be any permanent results. Yet the totality of a human being is always a mystery.

Symbolic Medicine

Chinese Medicine comes from a culture whose language is written in symbols... The Chinese language has a new symbol for every word, instead of building words from phonetic building blocks as English does. Because of this, the ideas are more symbolic and fluid. There is a logic to it, but sometimes the borders are a bit more blurred than in Western medicine.

The Mystery of How

How and why does Chinese Medicine work? We can describe in Chinese Medical terms how acupuncture and herbs work, but research is still clarifying how it works in biomedical terms (for a summary of what we do know, click here).

These are two different ways of decribing the same reality. Two angles on the same object. Think about binoculars... the two slightly different vantage points yield a three-dimensional view. Each medicine is incomplete and has strengths and weaknesses. Together they help us see the truth more clearly. Just as when our eyes merge the two binocular images into one, as western and eastern medicine become more and more integrated, we are seeing more and more of the three-dimensional picture of human health.

#3 - Chinese Medicine works - It's Practical

The theories (however intriguing or mysterious) lead to treatments that usually work. Healing occurs to the amazement of MD's and sometimes even to the new practitioner!

In just my several years as an intern, I've:

  • Stopped a severe asthma attack... effectively preventing a trip to the ER
  • Lowered a man's blood pressure enough to get him kicked out of a blood pressure medication study (his BP was no longer high enough to qualify him)
  • Prevented allergy attacks
  • Eliminated pain and restored lost feeling from diabetic neuropathy
  • Decreased the severity of PMS symptoms
  • Alleviated lupus symptoms (quenched a "flare up")
  • Restored sleep to insomniacs
  • Chased away all kinds of musculoskeletal aches and pains
  • Eliminated severe medication-dependent acid reflux vomiting; the man no longer needs medication or herbs and is fine

Healed Healers Healing You

Many Chinese Medicine students decide to become an CM physicians after being significantly healed (and impressed) by it. About one-third of them come to the profession for this reason.

A friend of mine had lupus and was treated by MD's with steroids- she gained 40 pounds. She was told to expect to live only another 10 years or so. She tried chinese herbal medicine, and it put her lupus into remission. She was so impressed that she decided to make chinese medicine her profession.

# 4 It's Simple AND Complex

At first you are captivated by the simple poetry of CM - but in time you are nearly overwhelmed by its depth and complexity.

The Advantages of the Simplicity Option

You can diagnose and treat disease at varying levels of complexity. You can always go back to the simpler perspective if you get lost in the complexity- this is the advantage of CM- at times, MD diagnoses are complex and elaborate, but they lack a treatment to address them. Western Medicine is great at describing in minute detail what is wrong with you, but it can't always fix the problem.

Nearly Limitless Complexity and Variation

CM also can be complex- there are 29 or so symptom-patterns which manifest in one or more of the 12 organ-systems, and there are dozens of pathomechanisms involved by which pathogens and organ dysfunctions affect one another. External influences can manifest in different ways in different people. We trace this by taking into account the individual's constitutional excesses and deficiencies. There are thousands of herbs; about 400 are used commonly, and each has 3-4 functions. There are hundreds of acupuncture points, each with functions and empirical indications. These are only the basics- there is a vast amount of variation within Chinese Medicine... but just these basics map out a matrix of thousands of relationships and insights.

#5 - it's Intuitive AND Intellectual

Knowing Hands

The 360 or so basic acupuncture points (and there are 100's more extra points) each have a specific anatomical location. Clinically, however, we often treat the "ah-shi" point (literally "that's it" - the most sensitive area nearby). Ah-shi points are found with help from the patient, but acupunturists often find that they "knew" where the point was (by feel) even before the patient said, "yeah, that's it." Massage therapists experience this too. Patients often say, "How did you know it hurt there?" or "I didn't even know that was sore!"

What are these "knowing" hands? Intuition? A learned kinesthetic wisdom? Both? This goes back to #2, "It's Mysterious."

Both Sides of Your Brain

Most students of western medicine choose their profession for three reasons:

  • They want to help people
  • They're good at science (left-brained)
  • They want to make good money

The typical CM student, on the other hand, is more right-brained, and less money-oriented. In fact, practice management seminars for acupuncturists often focus on the idea that "it's ok to charge your patients money!"

This distinction may change as the mainstream conception of CM changes; left brain facts and theories are indispensable to the practice of CM. As was said in #4, "It's simple AND complex," there is quite are quite a bit of facts and theories to learn, and integrating them in practice takes good analytical skills. And it's becoming clear that CM practitioners can make a great living (see #10 below).

In a way, the practice of CM is more balanced than western medical practice or massage because it requires the usage of both left and right brains. Biomedicine can be too intellectual (left-brained). Massage can be too simple. In Chinese Medicine, there is an art to:

  • Pulse-taking
  • Communicating with patients about issues that include the mental, emotional and physical (in biomedicine, patients are often sent to specialists who can deal with only one part of them. CM in the U.S. attracts complex patients.)
  • Integrating all the data into a comprehensive diagnosis (CM diagnosis is more syndrome-oriented and includes complex, often non-linear phenomena), and
  • Choosing an applying a number of different treatment modalities.

#6 It's Interactive

Chinese Medicine students learn about how every aspect of our lives (from bowel movements to emotions) relate to one another. We learn to relate to every kind of person.

Patients Can Push Your Buttons

Patients sometimes push our buttons, and this give us the opportunity to interact with ourselves. This is not always easy. We don't always like what we find! But if you commit to growth through interaction, helping, and self-examination, you can deactivate your buttons, grow past your limits, and increase your usefulness to others.

More specifically:

  • Some students may realize they came to medicine for a selfish reason and decide to put helping others first.
  • Some students find they are people-pleasers and have to learn how to set boundaries and be more assertive (not aggressive or passive-aggressive!).
  • Others are more confrontational and aggressive by nature and need to learn compassion and patience.
  • Some are analytical and live in their heads - they need to learn to focus on their hearts, gaining rapport and loving their patients.

Letting Go of Bad Habits

Your bad habits are called into question. At one point in my training, I went back to smoking cigarettes. It was a guilt-laden 6 weeks! It seemed hypocritical to want to be a healer while destroying my health. And I felt like I had to hide it. I quit to be a better example to my patients, and not to have to hide anything.

I also had to quit coffee. I knew from chinese medicine that it wasn't helping me with my impatience and irritability. It was worsening my liver qi stagnation! I had to give it up and take herbs instead. I had to practice what I preach.

When you know something is bad, it seems like fun to do it anyway (it gives you the illusion of power and control). But eventually you give in to the wisdom, do what is right, and get to feel even better. Then you can help others with the same struggle.

Your Victory can lead to their Victory

Occasionally, your own personal growth and commitment to self-examination helps your patients directly. At one point, I saw a woman with fears of abandonment. I had just discovered and confronted my own similar fears 6 months before. She was able to feel understood and heard and I was able to offer her solutions, strength, and hope.

In this way, we are trailblazers- pioneers in growth. If we remain shallow, so will our healing interactions. If we grow deeper, we can lead people to greater healing.

#7 It Benefits YOU Too!

As was just explained, by helping others you get to grow too.

Save on Health Care Costs

By giving yourself the know-how and resources to keep yourself, your friends, and your family well, you can save money. One acupuncturist said on an email list that it saved her family tens of thousands of dollars in medical costs. It can be practiced inexpensively - for many years it treated millions of poor peasants in China who had no access to western medicine. Chinese Medicine may be a large part of the solution to our healthcare crisis.

Professional Courtesy

Some acupuncturists trade treatments with one another to stay in good health. I've received hundreds of treatments from fellow students, practitioners, and my wife! It's helped me with anger, irritability, migraines, light sensitivity, fear, over-thinking, colds and flus, and cold sores, among other things.

#8 It's Traditional and Ancient

It's natural for us to look for reassurance, especially in dealing with our health. Biomedicine reassures by requiring studies of treatments for safety. Chinese medicine has been tested for safety and efficacy (especially acupuncture), and it has thousands of years of experience behind it to show what happens to the people it treats. It is inarguably a positive influence in our world. Biomedicine, on the other hand, is only 50 years old, and the full scope of the side effect phenomenon (short and long-term) has yet to be grasped.

Not every chinese remedy has been through the full rigors of the Randomized Controlled Trial (biomedicine's gold-standard), but neither have all of the standard biomedical treatments. The millions of hours and patient visits through hundreds of years establish traditional chinese treatments as safe and effective. More and more studies are being done to confirm them and understand how they work in biomedical terms. I have written extensively on acupuncture safety and how it works here.

#9 Its Theories have Broad Implications

Since it integrates many different disciplines and realms, CM concepts could be used to reorganize and give insight to psychology and psychiatry, pharmaceutical medicine, and sociology. These insights could guide and suggest future research in all fields.

The 16 types of the Meyers Briggs personality typing system have been somewhat integrated with the 5 constitutions and 6 temperaments of Chinese Medicine (read about that). This yields a mind-body medicine that integrates personality and physical disease.

From the patient's symptoms, we can understand their personality and what might help or hinder their healing from an emotional and behavioral perspective.

And vice versa, we can look at people's emotions and behavior and guess what kind of physical problems they might have. This makes for a quicker, more comprehensive medicine, and helps patients feel understood and confident in the care they receive.

#10 It can be a Lucrative AND Altruistic Career

As former AMA president and Medscape CEO George Lundberg, MD says, medicine walks a thin line because:

  1. It is supposed to be altruistic (selflessly concerned for others), but
  2. It is also a business (and thus vulnerable to selfish greed).

We could think of this as the yin and yang of the medical business.

Insurance Coverage for Acupuncture and Herbs

Some alternative medicine practitioners are happy to stay outside of the managed care system. It's valuable enough to patients to pay out of their own pockets. Increasingly, acupuncture is covered by insurance, HMO's and worker's compensation boards... sometimes the full cost of the treatment is covered and sometimes it isn't. Herbal medicine usually isn't covered... but patients are used to buying herbs and vitamins without reimbursement.

Lundberg suggests that:

  • Proven preventive care should be financed by the government,
  • Proven catastrophic care covered by insurance, and
  • Everything else paid for out-of-pocket.

Grossing Gross Amounts of Money - Acupuncture Salaries

Regardless of who pays, acupuncturists can expect an annual gross salary of between $40,000 and$1,000,000. I just heard about a hospital position for an acupuncturist in Iowa that was paying $159 per hour (their medical doctor rate).

My wife made $100,000 her first year out of school. One acupuncturist here in San Diego grosses near $1,000,000 annually with worker's compensation cases only.

Right now in California, work-comp reimburses $120 per acupuncture treatment. Some acupuncturists see 4 patients per hour...

Let's do some quick math on an example. If you averaged $80 per treatment (which is achievable), saw 2 patients per hour, and worked 8 hours per day, 4 days per week (leaving a day or two to do paperwork), 48 weeks per year you could gross $245,760. If you spend 40% of your gross on overhead, you earn $147,456 before taxes.

What Makes for Making Money

How much you earn depends, as in all businesses, upon your resourcefulness, initiative, marketing savvy, and - most importantly - the quality of your service. As in all service businesses, you must be good at what you do.

The Freedom to Give

Making all that money frees us to be altruistic. A lot of volunteer care is given by acupuncturists. During "9/11,", New York students from the Pacific Institute of Chinese Medicine treated the firefighters. Likewise, students in San Diego from the Pacific College of Chinese Medicine treat Viet Nam veterans every year at a special gathering. Of dozens of services, the acupuncture is among the top 3 requested. You can take on a number of low or no-fee cases in your own practice. It's up to you.

#11 - There are so many options

It's a varied profession.

In California, acupuncturists are physicians and can be a patient's primary care practitioner - they are professionals on par with MD's, chiropractors, and psychologists. As an acupuncturist...

  • You could work with an MD, DO, DC, psychologist, psychiatrist, or massage therapist.
  • You can work in a high-class office wearing a suit. You could practice at home wearing your slippers.
  • You could do all acupuncture, or all herbs, or both.
  • You could treat just sports injuries, or workers compensation, or acupuncture face-lifts, or gynecology, or psychiatry, or do it all!
  • There is room for new schools all over the U.S. - there are still states without any Chinese Medicine schools.
  • You could practice in California (where 1/3 of us practice), or you could have an 'insta-practice' in many places all over the U.S. that don't have access to Chinese Medicine.
  • You could teach or be a clinic supervisor at an established school.
  • You could see loads of patients, or spend 2 hours with each one. One herbalist in China sees 80 patients per day. You have to be good to get herbs right- to get them right and see that many patients per day, you have to be stellar!
  • You could create a business selling products to the 20,000 or so acupuncturists in the U.S. (even more internationally).
  • You can write books and teach continuing education seminars.

There are so many options!

Interested in an Oriental Medicine career?

Find schools that teach Oriental Medicine at the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine website.


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All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.
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