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How do we know TCM works?

Posted by kelinsheng March 5, 2010 in the Group General Discussion.

Tags: TCM, epistemology, science, medicine

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pretzellogic had some questions: 1. Do you study when to use certain medicines, and when not to? 2. Does each Chinese medicine have a list of side effects, and contraindications? 3. do Chinese medicines get studied in large systematic trials for medicine effectiveness? 4. Oh, and "hundreds of years of experience" means "doesn't need clinical trials".

Okay, I will try to answer these questions to the best of my ability here, but to answer completely would require a thesis paper (especially for 4.), and I'm going to try my best not to take any sides.

1. Yes, our treatment plans are based on a TCM diagnosis. Diagnosis is necessary in any form of medicine before coming up with any kind of treatment plan.

2. Yes there are lists of contraindications. You can take a look at Huang Qi on sacredlotus.com as an example.

3. I think your asking if TCM has standard scientific research validating it. It depends. A lot of research has been going into TCM and lately people have even been trying to extract a chemical from Frankincense to help with cancer. However, almost all the research completely neglects the methodology of TCM and instead uses an allopathic medical model. In TCM Ru Xiang (frankincense resin) can be used to help reduce swelling, but usually only if it is due to qi and blood stasis (often from trauma) or wind-damp bi syndrome. So rather than trying to scientifically prove if Ru Xiang helps with wind-damp bi syndrome, they're testing to see how a particular ingredient in Frankincense reacts with DNA to reduce swelling (tumours). I have a sneaky suspicion that it has something to do with patentability.

4. Basically your last two questions come down to epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, or how we know that we know. The scientific method is one way to obtain knowledge, but that doesn't mean there are not other ways of obtaining knowledge. TCM predates the scientific method and the ancient Chinese explained the world through concepts like Yin, Yang, and Qi among others.

It would be fascinating to know how they developed their knowledge back then, but I really don't know. I'm pretty sure they used both deductive and inductive reasoning. Here's example of deductive reasoning: Heat usually helps to keep a person from feeling cold. This person is feeling cold. Therefore, heat usually helps to keep this person from feeling cold. (This is Yin (cold) and Yang (warm) and and is the foundation of Daoism and by extension the foundation of TCM.) This could also be extended to Chinese herbal medicine: These herbs usually help with yang deficiency (warm). This person is yang deficient (cold). Therefore, these herbs (warm) will usually help this person with yang deficiency (cold).

And here's an example of inductive reasoning: Since heat helped to keep that person warm yesterday, and heat helped to keep that person warm today, then chances are heat will help keep that person warm tomorrow. Obviously in this case, the conclusion may not be true. Let's look at the sun though. The sun rose yesterday, it rose today, so chances are it will rise tomorrow. Does the conclusion for the sun example seem more true than the conclusion about using heat? Does it seem more plausible because the sun has risen daily for quite sometime? Does it change the probability that sun will rise tomorrow? How about billions of people over 4 500 years being helped everyday with a particular form of medicine?

Of course inductive reasoning doesn't actually prove anything. It only gives speculation as to what is most probable, but that could be why someone may have told you “'hundreds of years of experience' means 'doesn't need clinical trials'”.

Here's an article on the philosophy of science if your interested.

I hope that answered your questions and I hope I stayed as neutral as possible. I don't want to debate about the validity of any these things. I think each has their place.

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