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“My liver’s on fire?”

“My liver’s on fire?”

I recently saw a very nice gentleman for an initial consultation. He’d been to see another acupuncturist who had given him her opinion on his condition: “She told me my liver’s on fire. What does that mean?”

I explained to him that Chinese medicine has an alternative terminology, and that the language used is metaphoric, rather than scientific. Of course, it is possible for one’s liver to be inflamed – this is called hepatitis, which, when looking at this gentleman’s bloodwork report, he did not appear to have – but more likely, the other acupuncturist was using a common syndrome name we use in Chinese medicine: “Upflaming Liver Fire”. He also said the acupuncturist told him that his heart was weak, when his cardiologist had run a battery of tests and found nothing wrong with his heart.

Over the years, I have increasingly turned away from using Chinese medicine jargon with patients, precisely because of cases like the one here. We tend to use many of the terms which denote anatomical organs – we talk about the kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, gallbladder, and spleen, among other organs. So it is not uncommon for an acupuncturist to say to the patient that his spleen is weak, and for the patient to respond “sure it’s weak – I had it removed twenty years ago!”

So, for what it is worth, here are some examples of things I explain about my findings to the patient. First in each example is the Chinese medicine syndrome name, followed by a brief explanation in more common language:

Liver Qi Stagnation and Liver Fire: You are having difficulty managing your life stress. This is causing you to be tense, irritable or depressed. This in turn is causing your body to produce chemicals which cause a variety of inflammatory symptoms. Acupuncture can help reduce the tension and regulate the inflammatory reactions that are going on in your body

Spleen deficiency: You have a chronic weakness in your digestive system, and this results in tendency toward fatigue, bad digestion, weight gain, and muscle aches. Acupuncture can help regulate your digestion and increase your ability to properly absorb nutrients and get rid of excessive fluids and other waste products.

Heart deficiency: You are having difficulty sleeping, or thinking clearly, or you are anxious. You may have temporary disruptions in your normal circulation, causing palpitations. Acupuncture can help restore normal sleep patterns and help you to remain calm, all of which can help restore proper circulation and reduce the incidence of abnormal heart rhythm.

Lung deficiency: You are having difficulties with your breathing or your immune system is not functioning optimally and you catch colds frequently. Acupuncture can help regulate your respiratory and immune systems and reduce the frequency of these occurences.

Kidney yang deficiency: You are experiencing decline in your vitality, and also may be having problems with the proper metabolism of fluids. Acupuncture can help you regain some of this function, and can help your body to process fluids more efficiently, reducing the frequency of urination or water swelling. You tend to feel cold often, and acupuncture can help restore proper circulation to reduce the occurence of cold limbs.

Kidney yin deficiency: Your temperature regulation is imbalanced and you are experiencing hot flashes or head rushes, which often occur at night and may disturb your sleep. Your body is not producing enough moisture and you are getting symptoms of dryness. Acupuncture can help your body’s thermo-regulation, promote normal sleep and promote secretion of body fluid to reduce the dryness.

These are some general examples and there are many more Chinese medicine syndromes as well as specifics which arise on a cases-by-case basis. It sometimes happens that a patient has read something about Chinese medicine and understands the difference between our metaphoric language and the scientific language of modern medicine; or it is possible that they are curious about the Chinese medicine view of physiology. In those cases, I won’t hesitate to elaborate further. But I think it is better to try and explain our findings in plain language to avoid confusing – or worse, alarming – the people who come to acupuncturists for help with their health issues.