Overcoming fears about TCM treatments

A New Zealand expat in Shanghai finally pushed through his fears and faced one of China’s longest-held cultural aspects head-on!

Even though I’ve lived in China, off and on, for around five years, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is, somehow, something that I’ve managed to evade. Until now, that is. It was finally time to push through my fears and face one of China’s longest-held cultural aspects head-on!

If you ask the average foreigner the first two things that come to mind when they think of traditional Chinese medicine, they will probably mention two of the most famous, and oft-dreaded, treatments — cupping and acupuncture.

Then, if you asked them to describe an emotion, they’d probably choose “scared.” To be completely honest, I was no different. Do you remember the movie “Hellraiser?” Yeah.

For those of you unfamiliar with these treatments by name, acupuncture is where they stick a bunch of needles into your skin — their placement dependent specifically on your ailment or the location of your pain. Cupping, on the other hand, involves placing suction cups on certain areas of the body — usually the back — which results in dark red bruises that take up to 10 days to heal.

Someone in the TCM public relations department needs to be fired, right?!

I’m not sure, though, how prevalent PR departments were during the time of the Shang Dynasty (14th-11th centuries BC), when TCM is said to have first originated, at least in part. Thousands of years have passed since then, and TCM still holds an important and revered place in medicine here, regardless of how belittled and discounted it is by the West.

Tang Dafei / SHINE

Dr Wang Zhenwei takes the pulse of Andy Boreham at Yueyang Hospital in Shanghai.

As a foreigner living in China, I’ve always accepted I was obligated, to some degree, to at least give TCM a shot, and that’s exactly what I did recently at Shanghai Yueyang Hospital, where hundreds of patients — mostly of the older variety — cram in for treatments that they hope will protect them during the cold winter months.

If I said I wasn’t nervous, I’d be lying. Butterflies were flying around in my stomach as if they were in the midst of some kind of epic battle. I was sweating enough water to fill the Yangtze River, although that could have just been the heatwave.

My fears and anxieties were largely allayed, though, when I sat down to have a chat with Dr Wang Zhenwei, deputy director of the Respiratory Department.

I was expecting to blubber my way through the consultation in broken Chinese, showing off my non-existent medical vocabulary, but I was surprised to find that Dr Wang speaks excellent English. His smile, too, was somehow comforting, even though I knew that soon I’d be poked and prodded with needles.

The first treatment wasn’t at all invasive, the kind doctor convinced me. The delicious smell that was lingering in the air was futie, he said, which simply required placing medicine cakes on certain points of the skin.

But first he wanted to look at my tongue, he told me, which was a bit awkward. Then he felt my pulse for about a minute before declaring that I’m “very healthy.”

He told me that one of the more important inspections in TCM was looking at the patient’s tongue, since it acts as a sort of illustration, or map, of one’s health. I told him that I had brushed my tongue before heading to the hospital, as I do every day. “Don’t do that next time,” he laughed.

Tang Dafei / SHINE

Futie, or herbal medicine applied to the acupoints

True to the doctor’s word, this treatment was nothing at all to be scared of. Little brown discs of medicine — which the doctor deceptively called “cakes” — are placed on the body at certain points, where the ingredients are, theoretically, absorbed into the skin.

I was given a treatment that is said to help ward off coughs and other respiratory problems in winter. Unfortunately, though, the good doctor informed me that this treatment could only act as a taster unless I promised to come in three days a week for around five weeks. A bit much commitment for me, right now anyway. And I did notice that the vast majority of patients having the same treatment were elderly, and perhaps have more time due to retirement.

The treatment itself was quite relaxing; I just had to put one hand on an electric pad and then rest my head on a cloth while medicinal discs were placed on my neck for 20 minutes. The doctor said I would soon feel a bit tingly, which I never did.

After that I had medicinal discs stuck on my back that I was told to wear for two hours before removing. I’m not sure what the purpose was, but they were easy to take off later and didn’t leave me with any feeling or perceived change whatsoever.

Tang Dafei / SHINE

Acupuncture — needles, needles, needles!

This treatment was the one I was dreading the most, for obvious reasons. To make matters worse, I didn’t have the relative comfort of Dr Wang, and the new doctor didn’t even warn me before entering the room with a handful of needles.

My first question, and biggest concern, was whether or not it would hurt — she promised it wouldn’t. There would also be no blood since the needles are very thin. My next concern was whether or not the needles are clean and single use. She showed me that they were still wrapped in sterile packaging, which allayed my fears somewhat.

She decided, based on another tongue inspection and our brief chat about some of my concerns (waking with a headache on some hot days, coughs three times a year, and being tired some afternoons) that my yin energy was lacking, and that meant my immune system wasn’t as good as it could be. The fix, apparently, was nine needles in my neck and back.

It didn’t hurt, per se, but I did feel a tight, achy feeling around where the needles were placed. That was normal, I was assured. Then some hot packs were placed on top of the needles, bending them so they were flat to the skin, which sounds a bit strange.

After 20 minutes they were removed, but again I was told that continued treatment would be the best bet if I wanted to see any improvement.

Zhang Qian / SHINE

Cupping, and big, red bruises

Finally, I tried another very famous TCM treatment, cupping. Fire is used to suck the oxygen out of little round jars, which are then quickly placed on acupoints on your skin. The result, over the next few minutes, is that your skin and muscle is sucked up into the jars, resulting in very deep bruising that will take up to 10 days to clear.

But in spite of the fierce look of these bruises, there really is no pain. Rather, I experienced a tight, pulling feeling, which actually felt quite soothing and made me want to have a nap.

I didn’t notice any effects or benefits, but I think maybe I need to do that regularly, too, for optimal results.


In terms of benefits from the treatments I undertook, I think it’s too hard to make any real conclusions based on just one treatment.

All I know is that, looking at the amount of people flooding the hospital for TCM treatments, this form of medicine, despite being reduced to the label of “alternative therapy” in the West, is held in high regard by many, many Chinese. I’m glad I had a try myself. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up back there for regular treatments when I have some spare time.

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