FAQDavid A. Dawson, L.Ac.Zhu Da Header - D. A. Dawson, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Frequently Asked Questions

"I know next to nothing about acupuncture, and not a whole lot about medicine 
in general - is it okay if I ask dumb questions...?"

First and foremost:


Please feel free to ask any questions that come to mind. I'm not doing my job very well, in my opinion, if you don't understand at least a little about what we are doing!

The following material is divided into several sections - I recommend reading the whole thing (of course), but if you want to jump right to a specific concern, please feel free. The sections are:

I. The Four Most Common Questions

- Are you licensed?
- What is your background and training?
- How long have you been practicing?
- Why did you move to Bloomington?

II. Treatments

- How does acupuncture work? How do herbs work?
- What does acupuncture feel like? Does it hurt?
- What can you treat?
- Is Chinese medicine better at some things than others?
- How long will it take before I get better?

III. Terminology and Basics - Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

- Are 'acupuncture' and 'Oriental medicine' the same thing?
- What do you mean by the term 'Western' medicine?
- Is there a difference between Oriental Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine...?
- What kind of medicine do you do?

IV. Chinese Medical History and Theory of Medicine

- How old is Chinese medicine?
- What is the difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine? 
- Is Chinese medicine 'better' than Western medicine?
- What is the difference between treating with acupuncture and treating with herbs?

V. Personal Information

- How did you get started in Chinese medicine?
- What do you like best about Chinese medicine?
- Do you have any special training?
- Are there things you don't treat, or specialize in?

I. The Four Most Common Questions

Are you licensed?

Yes. I am licensed in the State of Indiana to practice acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and related aspects of traditional Chinese medicine. Prior to moving to Bloomington in 2007, I was licensed to practice acupuncture, etc., in the State of Washington since 2001. I am board-certified by, and an active member of, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

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What is your background and training?

I received my Master of Acupuncture (M.Ac.) from the Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Seattle, WA, in 2001. This included a full range of courses in Western medicine as well as the theory, diagnostic skills, and practice of Chinese medicine. In addition, I had extensive clinical experience both in general medicine, and in such specialties as Substance-Abuse Detox, HIV/AIDS, elder-care, dermatology, pediatric care, and treatment of psychiatric disorders.

In 2003, I received my Master of Traditional Chinese Medicine (M.T.C.M.) from the same institution; this degree focuses on Chinese herbs and formulas and their application in clinic. It also included extensive clinical experience.

Before my medical training, I received a B.A. from Indiana University in French Literature, a M.Div. from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (Ambridge, PA), and a Ph.D. from University of Edinburgh in Scotland. For more information, and greater detail about the above degrees, please refer to my Curriculum Vitae.

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How long have you been practicing?

I began clinical practice in Seattle, WA, in 2001, which I maintained until November, 2007, when I moved to Bloomington, IN. If one includes my years of clinical training under supervision, I have more than nine years clinical practice experience. I have over six years experience in private practice. Prior to studying Chinese medicine I had had a massage practice for seven years in California.

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Why did you move to Bloomington?

The short and simple answer is that I have always enjoyed the amazing diversity of this community. When an undergrad at IU, I made frequently attended the Music School offerings, enjoyed the athletic successes, and enjoyed the small-town and rural context of the community. It's a blend that captures a lot of what I value in life.

In addition, I am very involved in the sport of diving. I was a member of the IU diving team under coaching legend Hobie Billingsley, and continued to coach after leaving IU. After nearly 30 years coaching, I began to bring divers from the club in Seattle back to Indiana for the summer diving camp, and couldn't shake the feeling that this is where I belonged.

Over three years, I did my research, and checked out all the other things I needed to look into, and finally decided to do it. From the moment I drove into town in December, 2007, it felt like I was arriving back home.

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II. Treatments

How does acupuncture work? How do herbs work?

I find this question about acupuncture one of the hardest to answer. Most people are looking for an answer that makes sense within our Western understanding of the body, and there simply isn't a good one. The Chinese, on the other hand, have a very simple answer, but it requires the Western mind to let go of some deeply seated concepts, and be open to others which may be difficult to understand. But here is a quick-and-simple attempt:

Acupuncture works by adjusting the body's energy systems. The theory of Chinese medicine says that energy travels in a circuit through the body along channels that have connections to particular organ systems; by manipulating the energy in the channels thorough the appropriate choice of points on those channels, the acupuncturist can balance the energy of the body, and keep the organs working in harmony with each other. (For more on this, see my Theory of Chinese Medicine pages.)

As for herbs, this is easier - we are accustomed to taking in substances that have the ability to adjust the way various aspects of the body functions (decongestants, laxatives, and painkillers are examples of these). The Chinese have evolved an understanding of many hundreds of plant, animal and mineral products that can be put together to bring about positive changes in health; they put these substances together into 'formulas,' with as many as 20 or 30 medicinal products in each formula, which assist each other to bring about symptomatic relief, as well as to balance the underlying causes of disease. Chinese herbal medicine has the particular benefit of being infinitely adjustable - one simply increases, decreases or replaces ingredients in a formula to fine-tune it for each individual at any given point.

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What does acupuncture feel like? Does it hurt?

Most people experience a deep relaxation during treatments. Some patients even fall asleep, but usually people simply feel a sense of calm and peace. Acupuncture doesn't 'knock you out,' you can pay attention to what's going on around you if you like, but most folks would rather not - it's more enjoyable just to drift. I have had several people tell me they would come back for treatments even if they really didn't help with their main complaint, just to experience the restful feeling of the treatment (fortunately, the treatments do help with people's complaints, as well!).

When acupuncture is done with sensitivity, the patient may feel nothing at all, or only a slight sense of pressure when the needle is inserted. On rare occasion, there will be a slight stinging sensation when the needle is inserted (usually because the needle is too close to a hair follicle, which is where most of our sensory nerves are located). This can be very quickly alleviated by taking the needle out and reinserting it. There is usually a sensation of gentle pressure where the needle is inserted, this often passes during the treatment, but occasionally people will talk of one point or another feeling sensation during the entire treatment.

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What can you treat?

Just about anything. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, along with many less well-known traditional Chinese medical techniques, have been used as the main medical system in China for thousands of years. Everything that a human being (and animals, too - one of the weirdest things I've ever seen was a chart of acupuncture points for a camel!) experiences, from septic combat wounds, to threatened miscarriage, to cancer, to depression, to measles, has been treated successfully with acupuncture and herbs. In our medical training, there are some conditions which we are trained  to 'refer out' immediately, such as acute appendicitis, or broken bones. Apart from these, we are trained to recognize and treat just about every conceivable medical issue out there.

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Is Chinese medicine better at some things than others?

Chinese medicine, like any other medical system, has its strengths and weaknesses. Historically, Chinese medicine was used to address literally everything from emotional disorders to skin diseases, and from the common cold to cancer; today, many more options are available to us ... I would not advise an HIV patient to rely solely on Chinese medicine, nor try to treat someone with a broken arm solely with acupuncture or herbs - however, in combination with Western medicine, Chinese medicine may be helpful in providing healing and balance even in those areas where Western medicine is the most responsible primary treatment approach.

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How long will it take before I get better?

This is another question for which there is no easy answer. For one thing, the definition of a 'cure' or 'getting better,' will vary widely from person to person. For another, in our culture, we have become accustomed to masking our symptoms through medication, without actually changing the course of a disease (cough drops are an example). Chinese medicine looks to treat not only the symptoms, but whatever is underlying the symptoms that allow those symptoms to happen in the first place.

The three-fold measure of frequency, intensity and duration makes a good ruler to assess progress by. They also can be used as a rule of thumb to demonstrate how entrenched an issue has become - if a patient has had back pain for dozens of years, he or she is being perhaps overly optimistic to assume one acupuncture treatment will take it away! However, I have seen truly remarkable changes with one or two treatments of concerns that have plagued an individual for a long time. There are so many variables affecting people's health it is unwise to predict outcomes without doing a thorough diagnostic interview.

Nevertheless, this is a reasonable question, and deserves an answer. The answer, however, is something that a patient and his or her practitioner bring into clarity as go through the initial diagnosis, and as they see the results of the first, then the second, then the third treatment, and so on. One of the reasons for me being a bit ambiguous about this is that patients who have not had much acupuncture may either respond very strongly to the first treatment, or need a couple of treatments before the body 'figures out' how to respond.

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III. Basic Concepts - Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

Are 'acupuncture' and 'Oriental medicine' the same thing?

Yes and no. 'Acupuncture' is the medical science of regulating a person's energy systems by stimulating points on the body with tiny needles. As such is only one part of the Chinese medical system. It is often used, however, to refer to the whole of the medical system. Sometimes, it's easier just to use the shorthand term, rather than the whole list of things I do (in the same way that pants might be used to refer to jeans, slacks, or even underwear). So, for example, my 'Acupuncture' license also permits me to do Chinese herbal medicine, nutritional counseling, massage, gua sha, cupping, and moxa, among other things, all of which are part of the system of traditional or classical Chinese medicine (see the page on treatment modalities for more information about each of these approaches).

'Oriental medicine,' 'Traditional Chinese Medicine,' and 'Classical Chinese Medicine' are phrases more often used when someone wants specifically to include herbal medicine in the mix.

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What do you mean by the term 'Western' medicine?

Just as China, Japan, Taiwan, and other Asian countries are often referred to as the 'East,' Europe and the Americas are often referred to as the 'West.' The medicine relied upon most heavily in the USA, in Europe, and in many other countries sharing a similar culture, is based on a certain philosophy of diagnosis and treatment - briefly, laboratory testing and analysis underlies most of the medical assessment process, and pharmaceutical medications (products created and produced in laboratories by chemical, rather than natural, processes) and surgical intervention are the principle treatment modalities. This medical approach is often referred to as 'Western' medicine, or 'conventional' medicine (and sometimes as 'conventional Western medicine'). This medical approach developed out of the industrial revolution, and became the sole medical philosophy taught in medical schools in the very early 1900s (in large part as a result of economic pressure applied by the developing pharmaceutical industry).

Occasionally people will refer to this approach as 'traditional' medicine, meaning that it has become a tradition in their culture to rely on this medical approach, but the term 'traditional' is more appropriately applied to medical practices with a longer history.

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Is there a difference between 'Oriental Medicine' and 'Traditional Chinese Medicine,' and 'Classical Chinese Medicine?'

These terms are often used interchangeably, even by people who would define them as different things. Oriental Medicine is the broadest of the three terms, and may be used when a person wants to include traditions from Japan, Korea, China and other Asian countries under the same heading. Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM) limits the scope to Chinese traditions. Classical Chinese Medicine refers to those techniques and products with centuries of testing, rejecting 'modern' developments such as electro-acupuncture, and herbs brought onto the world market in the 1970s.

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What kind of medicine do you do?

As a practitioner, I lean more toward Classical Chinese medicine. There are a couple reasons for this: Firstly, I like the fact that the medicine I practice has been tried and tested over centuries and even millenia. A lot of what passes for 'traditional' medicine is not very well-rooted in historical documentation. The situation referred to in the question above where the Chinese government has flooded the herbal market with uncommon and less well-tested products is one example. Some of those products are excellent, but how do we know which are and which aren't high-quality and safe treatment options? We are all familiar with stories about pharmaceutical drugs that come onto the market and are touted as having great benefit in treating this or that disease, only to find out later that they have tragic side-effects that didn't appear during the three- or five-year testing protocols.

There simply is no substitute for the hundreds of thousands of hours of practical experience that have gone into the traditions of Classical Chinese medicine. My page on the history of Chinese medicine talks a bit more about the pros and cons of recent Chinese medical history.

Secondly, I long ago realized I was not very well-suited to trying to master a whole bunch of different things; I do best when I study thoroughly a specific approach to something, and then work from that foundation. Classical Chinese medicine offers that kind of foundation – I don't have to juggle Korean, Japanese, and New-Age American approaches to the treatment of patients: it's all there for me to work with in the Classics.  

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IV. Chinese Medical History and Theore

How old is Chinese medicine?

Chinese medicine is, quite simply, the oldest, best-documented and most highly developed medical system in the world.

Pardon me if this sounds smug, but it is quite simply the truth. The origins of Chinese medicine are said to go back a mythological ruler who is said tohave lived around 5000 BCE, but there is little documentation to recommend this as anything beyond romantic imagination. A conservative estimate of the origins of Chinese medicine is that it developed out of shamanistic approaches to disease and healing (which can be dated to the Late Stone Age - around 9000 BCE); its stepping out of the world of animism and superstition and into the world of scientific observation and evaluation is said to have happened in the middle of the 2nd millenium BCE (i.e. 1800-1500 BCE).

The earliest surviving Chinese medical book dates to the middle of the 3rd c. BCE - a fairly early date, when you realize that this means that there is about 2300 of continuous medical dialogue, record-keeping and research behind Traditional Chinese medicine.

The context of this book's publication adds a surprising twist: in 221 BCE, the Emperor Qin Huangdi ascended the throne, unified the government of China, and established the Imperial systems under which China would be ruled until 1912 (over 2000 years). He was a particularly self-absorbed ruler, and decided that history should begin with him, and so ordered that all the libraries in China be burned.

Scholars in the Emperor's service undertook the task of rewriting as much of the lost material as they were able to do - which they called the Huang Di Nei Jing, the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. (Huang Di, which means 'Yellow Emperor,' was the name of a legendary great ruler, who was said to have ruled around 5000 BCE, thus giving rise to the myth that Chinese medicine has its origins at that date; the Emperor Qin took this name as his own when he ascended the throne, and his medical scholars thought it wise to name their work after him.) The book is thus a compilation of the earlier material destroyed by his book-burning.

Archeological evidence has shown that the medical systems of later China developed out of even earlier traditions - fragments of books, and other medical artifacts, show that the medical system we see in the Huang Di Nei Jing had many hundreds of years of development prior to the 2nd c. BCE.

There have, of course, been significant changes in the theory and practice of medicine in China through the centuries. In some ways, Qin Huangdi can be credited with setting things on a track that permitted the continuity and development of Chinese medicine throughout the centuries. By establishing a system of government that valued highly both connections to the past and intellectual achievement, he created a culture of recorded knowledge, in which doctors of Chinese medicine could build on each others' successes and learn from each others' difficulties - all of which promoted the development of a highly sophisticated understanding of diagnoses and treatments. (Please see the History of Chinese Medicine page and its links for more information.)

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What is the difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine? Is Chinese medicine 'better' than Western medicine?

Two simple contrasts highlight the differences between Chinese and Western medicine: firstly, Western pharmaceutical medicine is at most a couple hundred years old, and much of its development has taken place in the past few decades; Chinese medicine is thousands of years old, with all the benefits of observation and evaluation that confers.

Secondly, Chinese medicine focuses on health and balance, and has sophisticated ways of determining when a person begins to move toward illness; Western medicine has less of an emphasis on maintaining health, and more of an emphasis on treating disease. This is not to say, however, that Western medicine has 'no concept of health,' as has sometimes been claimed: one has only to look at the pharmaceutical medications developed for diabetes, or epilepsy, to recognize the mistruth of that statement.

In addition, Chinese medicine takes into consideration the constitution as well as the constellation of symptoms of the individual patient in order to treat imbalances; it has the ability to fine-tune treatments to an astounding degree.

While I have a tremendous respect for what Chinese medicine can do (the kinds of things that are discussed in the Chinese literature as commonplace treatments and cures are often disbelieved in Western medical circles – see for example the page on Spirit Disharmony / Psychiatric Disorders for examples of this), if I had to deal with cancer, or heart disease, or HIV, I would rely heavily on the wisdom of my MD. I would also hope that MD would respect what a good Chinese doctor could bring to the table in treating these conditions, but pharmaceutical medications are incredibly powerful for treating certain conditions.

In short - I strongly believe that both Chinese and Western medicine have great strengths. They each have their less successful areas as well, and should always be considered companions in the search for health, rather than competitors.

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What is the difference between treating with acupuncture and treating with herbs?

Chinese medicine is practiced differently in America than it is in China. One way in which the Chinese  approach differs from that practiced here is that in China, acupuncture is rarely performed as a stand-alone treatment choice. Most often acupuncture is seen as an adjunct therapy to herbal medicine. In America it is more often the reverse.

Acupuncture tends to 'harmonize' things - that is, it brings things towards the middle, closer to balance. In so doing, it does some things very well (releasing stress, resolving muscle spasms, facilitating digestion, and so on). Herbal medicine also has its areas of special efficacy. In particular, the fact that an herbal formula is taken two to three times a day means that there is a steady nudge to the system that acupuncture can only provide if the patient is treated daily, or even more frequently. This is in fact the way acupuncture is practiced in China - patients often receive a program of 10 or 12 daily or twice-daily treatments, then there is a short break, then the sequence is repeated. Herbs, when taken regularly, can provide a more consistent force for change.

In addition, while acupuncture tends to bring things 'back to the middle,' herbs can move the system in any direction necessary; an herbal formula can help send energy downward or upward, speed up or slow down, calm down or stimulate greater movement and energy, disperse fluids, moisten, dry, or a combination of these and many other strategies. Herbal medicine has a greater degree of potential to heal, but it also therefore has the potential to harm. One needs to be humble before the science of Chinese herbal medicine. It is complex, highly nuanced, and requires a great deal of experience and commitment to learning in order to become good at it.

Herbal formulas can be minutely adjusted and fine-tuned - if a formula helps a patient's headache but doesn't adequately deal with her sleep issues, the formula can be 'tweaked' to allow for greater success with the sleep, while still offering success with the headaches. If the headaches go away altogether, the herbs addressing them no longer need to be included in the formula. If the patient pulls a muscle in her leg during dance class, the formula can be augmented to address that, while still maintaining the forward progress with the other goals of the treatment. This feature of being able to fine-tune a formula on a daily basis, if necessary, sets Chinese herbal medicine apart from Western medicine, and indeed from all other medical systems in common use today.

The web pages on the Theory of Chinese Medicine will be helpful to those who want more detailed information.

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V. Personal Background

For detailed information about my history, education and training, please see my Biography page and its links.

How did you get started in Chinese medicine?

The basic gist of the story is that I tried acupuncture and herbs while doing my doctorate in Scotland, and fell in love with the way it integrated all aspects of life. I was nearly ready to 'change horses in mid-stream' to study Chinese medicine then and there, but chose to finish my Ph.D., and then some ten years later decided that since the world of Chinese medicine was still a burning dream of mine, I had better follow my heart and do it.

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What do you like best about Chinese medicine?

As you can tell from reading these FAQ answers, I love the historical continuity of Chinese medicine; I love the fact that great doctors for thousands of years have recorded their approaches to disorders and how to treat them, and that others have confirmed the wisdom of these approaches - and that this wisdom has been cherished and passed on so that people like me (and my patients) can benefit from it.

I also love the fact that there is very little judgmentalism inherent in Chinese medicine; when everything is seen to be interconnected – from the environment, to the various organ systems of the body, to the mind and spirit of the person there is no reason to show horror or disgust when a patient presents with skin sores, or mental and emotional instability. It is all simply part of a larger picture that can be addressed and healed.

In addition, there is a metaphysical aspect to Chinese medicine that I find remarkable: if one can use a point on the body to treat the balance of the whole if the ear, hand, foot, or abdomen can be a micro-system which allows us to balance the whole system – then by healing individuals of their cares and ills, we are also, not-so-indirectly, contributing to the balance and healing of the world and of the universe. It is a small thing, in fact, to heal someone of a cold, or to help someone through menopause; it becomes a great thing when seen as a part of the healing of the whole circle of life.

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Do you have any special training?

My basic training followed the typical course an acupuncturist takes. I earned a Master of Acupuncture from Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Seattle, WA, (2001); however, I then followed that with a Master of Traditional Chinese Medicine (the herbal medicine degree program) at the same institution (2003). Although it has since closed its doors as a result of a series of financial decisions that put it too far into debt, while I was a student there, NIAOM was considered one of the top three colleges of Oriental Medicine in the U.S.

In addition to its academic excellence, its reputation was based on its wealth of clinic training options. At a time when the average college of Oriental medicine in the States offered a single on-site clinic, and perhaps one or two external clinical options, NIAOM offered a choice of 17 external specialty clinics, as well as the traditional on-site clinic, and several on-site specialty clinics. My own training included specialized training and clinical experience at HIV/AIDS clinics, a dermatology specialty clinic, a gerontology clinic in a retirement community, as well as several clinics focusing on substance-abuse detox.

For more details, please see the webpage about my Training, and my Curriculum Vitae.

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Are there things you don't treat, or specialize in?

I am a general practitioner, but do have areas of special interest. I am trained in treating the full breadth of medical issues, and comfortable with addressing more or less anything a patient may present with. Yet there are areas I am particularly interested in. The latter have become areas of specialty for me.

The first of these is what gets labeled in Western medicine as 'psychiatric disorders' or 'mental illness'; in Chinese medicine these are called Spirit imbalances and are treated as simply a part of the constellation of things that don't go right when there is an imbalance in the system. Chinese medicine has a long history of treating successfully everything from schizophrenia to paranoia to depression to bipolar syndromes. Please see my webpage dedicated to Spirit Disharmony / Psychiatric Disorders for more information.

In addition, I am passionate about providing alternative medical support to those who struggle with HIV and AIDS. We have entered an era, thankfully, where this disease is no longer the death sentence it was not long ago, but it is still a very challenging illness to live successfully with. Chinese medicine's approach looks at the constitution of the patient along with the pattern that the illness 'wants to follow' and thus can strengthen the patient weaker areas before the disease has a chance to debilitate him or her, and to assist recuperation if the disease has already taken a toll. Chinese medicine supports the system to help patients tolerate their medication with fewer side-effects, and to help them respond to their medical regimens longer, so that they do not run through treatment options as quickly. My HIV/AIDS webpage has a detailed introduction to how Chinese medicine looks at HIV/AIDS, and how books written 400-600 years ago gave detailed descriptions of the progress of the disease and strategies for treating it – this page is more technical and more detailed than the average page on this website, but for those of you with a particular interest in this area I felt it was worth the detail.

Thirdly, I am committed to helping athletes find that balance and strength - both mentally and physically - that will help them perform at their best. My own background in sports (see my diving webpage) has given me the background and passion that enables me to find solutions to issues that present themselves for those training at elite levels. I offer significant discounts to high-school and collegiate athletes on massage and acupuncture treatments. Please see my Athletes webpage for more information.

From time to time, patients find themselves dealing with complicated combinations of medical concerns – a systemic inflammatory disorder, combined with depression, or a difficult childbirth which has left the mother with weakness, rashes and a long-term cold. Often these combined disorders are not addressed well by the conventional Western approaches to medicine. A thorough diagnosis and multi-faceted treatment plan are necessary to bring balance back to the system. Migraines, perimenopausal symptoms, post-Polio syndrome, mononucleosis, cancer, 'walking pneumonia,' and so on, all require precise diagnosis and a finely detailed approach to treatment. With appropriate attention to all layers of the patient's concerns, and a willingness to stay the course (on the part of both the practitioner and the patient) these conditions can be substantially improved, or alleviated altogether. I am deeply committed to providing Chinese medical options for patients dealing with this kind of concern; please see my Complex Disorders page for more information.

There are areas I am less interested in.'Acupuncture face-lifts' have recently been in the news (perhaps more on the West coast than here!); this kind of cosmetic treatment does not appeal strongly to me.

I have had a number of patients approach me to 'help them lose weight' - this can be an area which Chinese medicine can help with, but Indiana state law forbids the sale of herbal products specifically for weight loss. The point of contact is when the patient is willing to understand weight loss as a part of balancing the entire system, and is willing to do what is required for that to be successful - regular and consistent treatments and herbal support, changes in diet and exercise, and in ways of thinking and acting with regard to oneself. I am not a slave-driver with regard to all this, I simply approach it the same way I approach any other systemic concern; the patient, too, needs to understand that I will not simply be giving them some secret herbal formula that will 'melt the pounds off them.'

My approach is the same with people who want to stop smoking,or the use of recreational drugs. There is far more going on than a simple 'habit' that needs to be broken, and if someone wants my help with it, we will need to be on the same page with regard to both my and the patient's contribution to the process.

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