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Modern take on traditional medicine

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“The practice of medicine is an art, based on science.”

William Osler, considered “the father of modern medicine,” proclaimed these famous words. His philosophy serves as a standard of excellence and a model for the evolution of all practitioners, not simply those of Western medicine. Indeed, the ancient art of acupuncture and moxibustion (burning of dried mugwort) in Japan, called hari-kyu, dates back more than 1,500 years and continues to be practiced today by licensed practitioners whose skills involve a balance of logic, deductive reasoning, perception and intuition.

This November, Japan will be hosting, for the first time in 23 years, the International Conference of the World Federation of Acupuncture-Moxibustion Societies (WFAS), whose theme is the art of acupuncture and moxibustion. The conference aims to address issues such as standardization in the practice, its strength as a sustainable form of treatment and developments in innovation.

“Medicine should target a human being not only as a science but also as an art. True medicine should target the overall health of each individual,” said Shuji Goto, president of this year’s WFAS conference. A prominent figure who has made great strides in the practice, Goto also serves as president of The Japan Society of Acupuncture and Moxibustion (JSAM) and chairman of the Goto College of Medical Arts and Sciences in Tokyo.

Hari-kyu provides a holistic approach to treating disease and illness, the body, mind and spirit. The practice focuses on all of the patient’s bodily systems as a whole, to restore homeostasis, or the body’s natural balance. It thus emphasizes the body’s natural healing. Knowing that the body is capable of regaining its own natural balance with consistent, appropriate stimulation is a pillar of hari-kyu philosophy.

Derived from ancient China some 1,500 years ago, traditional Japanese medicine evolved throughout history into a uniquely distinct form. Insiders will note the uniqueness of Japanese practice lies in palpation, a touch technique essential to diagnosis and treatment. While examining a patient, the practitioner touches the skin, connective tissues, muscles and organs to gather sensory information used for diagnosis. Palpation continues throughout the session to ascertain changes and responses in the body, allowing for the practitioner to adjust the treatment and making the approach highly individualized.

As much as palpation is necessary for the practitioner, the act of gentle touching by itself soothes the patient, aiding in healing.

Another characteristic of Japanese acupuncture is the shallow insertion of very fine needles using a guide tube to reduce pain. The importance of detecting excess and deficiency in the skin and connective tissue is essential to treatment, thus the development of various techniques to stimulate the surface of the body. The subtle, fine needling approach tends to be favored in Western cultures by patients wary of long and thick needles.

Hari-kyu is as much unique as it is effective in treating a wide array of ailments. From musculoskeletal complaints — lower back pain and shoulder stiffness being the most common — to headaches and fertility issues, the practice has gained a foothold in less oft-used areas such as sports medicine, mental health and in terminal illnesses such as cancer.

Even the world of professional sports has begun to recognize the benefit of a holistic approach to athletes’ health.

Just take a look at Haro Ogawa, the team trainer and acupuncturist to the San Francisco Giants. It is no coincidence that since he joined the team in 2008, the team has won the World Series a record three times. Ogawa keeps the players at the top of their game throughout the year and as he was educated in Japan first, he stresses the importance of palpation. “You have to feel imbalances with your hands and fingers to get a good diagnosis” he said in an interview. Needless to say, both acupuncture and moxibustion are drug-free treatments, and thus ideal for professional athletes who are subject to doping tests.

Some skeptics may doubt traditional medicine, with the recent trend in medicine focusing on efficacy in clinical trials first, followed by debate over the scientific mechanisms to endorse its effectiveness.

But researchers across the world are collecting scientific backing on the efficacy of traditional medicine. They use randomized controlled trials and meta-analysis results to assess the effectiveness of hari-kyu. Studies to clarify the efficacy of hari-kyu are being conducted on chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, migraines, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, alleviating labor pain, correcting fetal breech among others.

Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, medicine, doctors, water and power were limited. Many afflicted by the disaster were forced to sleep on hard gymnasium floors or in their cars, suffering from insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder, turned to hari-kyu treatments at evacuation shelters throughout the Tohoku region.

A recent pilot study conducted in sub-Saharan Africa investigated the efficacy of treating drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis (TB) with Japanese direct moxibustion. Rooted in the work of Shimetaro Hara who used moxa (dried mugwort) to treat TB in 1930’s Japan, the African study reported reduction of pain, improvement in energy and overall immunity in patients, as well as a reduced rate of infection. Importantly, patients learned to perform treatment on themselves and others in the community, providing a sustainable and affordable care model.

History is evident. The healing art of hari-kyu has worked for more than 1,500 years and continues to evolve to show its potential as a sustainable form of health care. Understanding that the only constant is change, Japanese modern practitioners continue to adapt to changes in medicine and social development, drawing on the value of hari-kyu in positive ways without letting go of traditional theories.


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