chinese medicine patterns of disharmony

The process of diagnosis (and the principle of treatment based on that diagnosis) is much different in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory than it is in the biomedical model.  Because of the differences in the holistic vs. the reductionist models of medicine, signs and symptoms of illness are never considered in isolation in TCM.  All symptoms are analyzed by discriminating the underlying pattern of disharmony which underlies a person’s complaint.  Symptoms are a piece of a bigger puzzle.

There is an important saying in Chinese Medicine: “Same disease, different treatments; different diseases, same treatment”. One symptom can have many causes; and one cause can result in many different symptoms.

In contrast to the biomedical model, treatments in Chinese Medicine are not usually aimed at the symptoms themselves.  Rather, therapies are aimed at rectifying the underlying imbalance of the body as a whole.  Once overall balance is restored, the symptoms will naturally diminish.

An example to illustrate this.  Headaches are an extremely common complaint, and most people will acknowledge that an over-the-counter (or even a prescribed) analgesic does not work for everybody. If someone came to a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine with a complaint of a headache, the doctor would first ask themselves, “What is the underlying cause of this headache?”

To correctly diagnose a headache in TCM theory, we must consider the circulation of Qi & Blood, the balance of Yin & Yang, the state of the vital substances, the balance of the ZangFu, and the contribution of any internal, external, or other causes of disease.  This is why a whole slew of seemingly unrelated questions will be asked in a Chinese Medicine diagnostic evaluation.  These questions are highly relevant.  There are (at least) 17 different underlying imbalances which can lead to a headache, each of which has their own treatment strategies:

  • Wind-cold invasion
  • Wind-heat invasion
  • Wind-damp invasion
  • Liver-Yang rising
  • Liver-Fire
  • Liver-Wind
  • Liver-Qi stagnation
  • Stagnation of Cold in the Liver channel
  • Dampness
  • Turbid Phlegm
  • Turbid Phlegm-Wind
  • Retention of Food
  • Stasis of Blood
  • Stomach-Heat
  • Qi Deficiency
  • Blood Deficiency
  • Kidney Deficiency

Any one of these underlying states of imbalance can result in different additional symptoms (which can help us to discriminate the underlying pattern of disharmony).  For example, in the case of wind-cold invasion, a person can also display any, or all, of the following:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Body aches
  • Chills & fever
  • Superficial pulse

To further complicate the matter, rarely is there only one pattern of disharmony present.  People are complex, and individuals often display symptoms related to two or more underlying patterns.  It is important to clarify, however, that people do not “have patterns of disharmony”, we “display patterns of disharmony”.  These patterns can be transient because humans are, by nature, dynamic and ever-changing.  Imbalances can frequently be re-balanced.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to treatment in Chinese Medicine.  The culmination of each person’s constitution, diet, lifestyle, life experience, emotions, exposure to toxins, exercise, rest, and environment all factor into their particular pathogenesis.  That’s why over-the-counter treatments usually do not synchronize with the philosophies of the medicine.

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