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Safety concerns? Compared with orthodox Western medicine, Chinese Medicine when practised by qualified and experienced individuals has an amazingly good safety record.
Nevertheless, as time has gone by, and it becomes more popular, Governments are taking more interest and the medical professions are getting concerned.
In 1986 the British Medical Association produced a report which panned all forms of Alternative Medicine.
In 1994 their next report reversed many of the findings of the first report, at least as regards acupuncture and homeopathy.
In November 2000 the Select Committee of the House of Lords report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in effect approved wholeheartedly of five therapies:
For a variety of reasons, probably based on the fact that they had an incomplete understanding of it, Chinese Herbal medicine was given a lower rating regarding safety concerns.
Some of the original authors of the report, having seen more of it, are now inclined to elevate Chinese Herbal Medicine to the same status as Acupuncture.
Acupuncture is used throughout the world. Its benefits have been seen in treating acute and chronic illness, in assisting with addiction withdrawal, at childbirth, and in anaesthesia. The World Health Authority lists a huge number of conditions which it regards as bieng treatable with acupuncture.
Safety Concerns about Acupuncture
Professor Edzart Ernst when at the Department of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, Devon, England, became something of an acupuncture 'killer'.
However, some of the claims he made for the danger of acupuncture were unjustified. For example, 'acupuncture has killed 30 people': actually, this was during a period of thirty years, and was world-wide.
Compare that with the numbers of people dying annually from surgery, or dying from prescribed medication….! In any case, one of the 30 people who died was a woman in Sweden who stabbed herself with a knitting needle: not acupuncture at all!
Any therapy that can do good can cause ill. There are safety concerns about unqualified practitioners using acupuncture needles, of course. Also, hygiene is an issue: nowadays, no needles are used more than once, although there is doubt as to whether this is really necessary.
But in general, given the enormous number of treatments worldwide, acupuncture can be considered a remarkably safe therapy with very few safety concerns, when performed by qualified professionals.
Considerable research has now been carried out on the safety of acupuncture, with very positive results. Click for more on this and for the results of a major study into safety concerns for acupuncture.
Concerning Herbal medicine, an article in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in 1987 gave the following statistics:
Since then, China's export of herbs has increased steadily to practitioners all over the world. Some practitioners prescribe many tons of herbs annually, with nothing but benefit for their patients. As in so many other areas of life, a very small number of cases have given it a bad name. If the same criteria were applied to Western Medicine, one might hazard a guess that nobody would ever visit a Western, orthodox, hospital again.
The difference is that we are unused to Chinese Medicine and suspicious of it. In addition, manufacturers of orthodox medication fear that their market is shrinking because of these competing medicines, and lobby for more control so that they can first patent and then profit from drugs equivalent in action to the herbs in question.
There are two main safety concerns.
Safety concerns here? Our advice is as follows. If you experience adverse symptoms after taking Chinese herbs as prescribed, you should stop taking the herbs and consult your herbalist.
The symptoms we mean are:
Do not restart taking the herbs until instructed to do so.
Basically, if the herbs come from responsible importers who know their sources and check their products properly, then there should be no safety concerns with toxicity when the herbs are prescribed by someone appropriately qualified.
Chinese herbs have been in use for thousands of years, and are inherently safe when prescribed as recommended. However, just as some individuals have reactions to Western medications, eg penicillin, so some people react idiosyncratically to individual Chinese herbs.
It is therefore sensible to start with less than the recommended full dosage and work up gradually so that any adjustments can be made.
Sensitivity should not be confused with the fact that Chinese herbs do make changes in the body, and it is not uncommon to have digestive changes when adjusting to herbs. These should be noted and if in any doubt, ring your practitioner.
The following is more technical, but may be useful. There is a test called the ALT test (Alanine AminoTransferase - previously known as the SGPT - Serum Glutmic Pyruvic Transaminase).
This measures ALT which is usually present in high concentration in the liver. It is also present in heart and skeletal muscle, but in much lower concentrations, so the ALT test is fairly specific to the liver, and is raised only if liver disease is present. Normal levels are below 45: if the level exceeds this, it may be due to alcohol, drugs (such as paracetemol), thyroid disease, new diabetes or heart failure. It needs investigation if it exceeds 150.
However, many people have a naturally raised level, or because it is raised by harmless dietary factors or other, perhaps Western, herbs or supplements which they are taking. These people may react beneficially to Chinese herbs.
A very few people have a sudden dramatic increase in ALT from taking Chinese herbs, leading to jaundice. Here, clearly there are safety concerns and one would stop the herbs, allowing the ALT level to fall naturally.
Then perhaps retest with smaller quantities of the herbs, or with a different variety of herb.
If the ALT level rises, it has often been found to rise to a peak after twelve weeks, then reduce. However, the more common pattern is that the ALT level rises after the first week or two before settling back when the body becomes adjusted to it.
In general, the problem is very rare. The main safety concerns' considerations are whether there is continuing
... all of which are signs of a liver trying to detoxify.
When we give patients herbs, we explain what to look out for and when to get back to us.
The problem comes mostly when people persist in taking herbs even when they are feeling very ill from them, or perhaps when they continue to take the herbs long after they are needed, or when their health pattern has changed or improved.
Other safety concerns to consider, especially if importing herbs directly rather than through an approved importer, include the following.
There is, however, another safety concern, caused by Government intervention. Some herbs are banned because either their use threatens the continued existence of animals or species, or cruelty is involved in production. See the picture right, of a rhinoceros, copyright Kurt Vrey, Dreamstime: rhinoceros horn is, unfortunately, credited with certain benefits. Alternative herbs are better and give no safety concerns for the rhinoceros, an endangered species.
There are other herbs that actually have produced no ill-effects except under very exceptional circumstances that would not normally occur.
An example of this is Akebia Trifoliata, which has never been implicated in poisoning people but which shares its Chinese name 'mu tong' with other herbs, some of which, when over-used, have caused problems. Banning the use of this herb deprives practitioners of a very useful, safe and vital herb.
Many people are taking Chinese herbs that they have read or heard about, such as Astragalus (Huang Qi), or Ginseng (Ren Shen) or Chinese Angelica root (Dang Gui/Tang Kwei) with only a few problems. These can be bought in many UK shops.
(Long-term use of any herb, Western or Chinese, is not recommended unadvisedly because they have an effect on us which is usually only very gradual.
The experience of herbalists and homeopaths is that any substance will, especially if taken regularly, ultimately affect us. Since its effects will only gradually infiltrate into our lives, we may not realise where they come from, or indeed that anything is amiss.)
In a small number of cases, herbs were prescribed by people who did not have the requisite experience or knowledge, with results that have given Chinese herbalism a bad name.
Government intervention has banned useful herbs on the grounds of public safety. It is to be hoped that these herbs will be returned to use before long, with suitable controls over their distribution.
If you live in the Edinburgh area of Scotland, where the author of this site (and of the books described below) works, click on Edinburgh Acupuncturist.
If you live elsewhere, click on BAcC.
Please note! The Kindle editions are less easy to read! Although the paper editions cost more, they are much easier to read and to refer back and forth to the contents and index.
Here are some of the books Jonathan has written:
Still only one comment, though personally I think this is my best book so far.
Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine!
No comments yet: just published. (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read and will be much more useful than all the websites on the subject.)
3000 years of Chinese being stressed, and at last, here's a book showing how all that experience can help you!
By the author of this website, it explains in simple English how to use stress to improve and enhance your life.
NB You can also order 'Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress' from your bookseller.
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