Patient A comes in to clinic with the following symptoms: Tension headaches, tight neck and shoulders, fatigue after eating, stomach cramps for no reason, chronically loose stools, trouble falling asleep even though she is really tired, and unexplained dizziness.
Patient B seeks treatment for a wide constellation of symptoms that she can’t explain: heel pain, low back pain, knee pain, even though she has no history of injury to any of these areas. She is going through menopause and experiencing hotflashes and nightsweats. Her urination is scanty even though she drinks a lot of water. She has been diagnosed with osteoporosis recently.
Patient C comes to clinic following the loss of his mother 6 months ago. He came down with pneumonia shortly after her death and now has a lingering, weak, chronic cough. He shivers a lot and has caught multiple colds in the past few months. His voice is weaker than it used to be, and he has noticed that his skin is drier than usual, to the point of it flaking off.
A conventionally trained physician would most likely look at each of these symptoms in a stand-alone sense. Patient A may be prescribed pain medication for her headaches, a sleeping aid to help her fall asleep, and perhaps a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Patient B may be recommended to go on HRT to manage the symptoms of menopause, and may be given a script for physical therapy for either the knees or the back or the heels, depending on which is worse. She would be tested for kidney diseases, but if those looked clear, she would be told to drink more water. Patient C may be prescribed various kinds of cough medications and medicated skin creams, and be told to see a grief counselor.
One of the main ways that acupuncture is different from a conventional medical view, is that is looks at the whole body. We look for patterns rather than diagnoses, we look at what the sum of all the symptoms is, not as much the individual parts.
So from an acupuncture perspective, these 3 patients all present with very common patterns of imbalance. And it is the constellation of symptoms that point to that imbalance – just knowing a patient has headaches, for instance, doesn’t allow an acupuncturist to see the pattern. By looking at the whole picture, the reason for the headaches becomes clear.
(As a side note – there are dozens of ways an acupuncturist can describe these patterns and symptoms. Below, I use Five Element acupuncture terms and also the Tradional Chinese Medicine terms. Note that words like “Liver” and “Spleen” don’t correspond to the physical organs in your body, but rather to specific kinds of energy that exert specific physiological functions.)
With acupuncture, patient A would be treated for a blockage in one system (Wood, or Liver system), leading to a weakness in the digestive (Earth) and emotional systems (Fire, or Heart). This is such a common pattern that there is a ready-made herbal formula for treating this exact presentation.
Patient B would be treated for a weakness of the yin energy of the body, particularly a certain kind of yin energy. (That of the Water element, or the Kidney system.) The yin energy is the cool, watery, passive energy of the body, and is stored in the Kidney energy system. The kidney energy system also controls the heels, knees, low back, bones, and urination.
Patient C would be treated for a weakness of a particular energy system that is the seat of Grief in the body, and it also controls the skin, the respiratory organs, and our immunity (Metal, or Lung system.)
I always tell patients that when I am asking them questions about what is going on, I am painting a picture for myself of their body’s energy – then I step back and look at that picture, that pattern of their body’s energy flow. And all of the various signs and symptoms point to that pattern – likewise, that pattern can be used to infer certain symptoms or anticipate symptoms that may arise down the road.
This is how I approach every patient, every pattern, every main complaint. But I find it is particularly helpful to share this approach with patients who come seeking treatment for a wide array of disparate symptoms, when they have been told that the symptoms aren’t connected to one another, or they feel like their body is “falling apart” because so many different things are going wrong. They are often intrigued and comforted to learn that their symptoms may all be related from an acupuncture perspective. Seeing these patterns and connections between symptoms allows us to treat the root cause of an issue or imbalance, setting the patient on the road to better health and wellness.