“Traditional” nonsense

One aspect of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is the resurgence of practice of what has frequently been called “traditional Chinese medicine” (TCM). I’ve pointed out before that TCM is a prescientific system of medicine based largely on superstition and vitalism. Indeed, where ancient Greek and European medical systems believed that disease is due to imbalances in the four humors, TCM postulates disease to be due to imbalances in the five elements: Water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. These elements are thought to be related by cycles known as the Shen or Nourishing Cycle and the Ko or Regulating cycle. None of it makes any more or less sense than the humoral theory of medicine. It’s all ideas that were developed before germ theory, scientific medicine, or other basic aspects of medical science that we all take for granted. One can understand why Europeans from hundreds of years ago and the ancient Chinese developed these ideas about disease. They didn’t have the basis in the knowledge of how the body works and of microbes that can attack the body that would have allowed them to have come up with a better system because the necessary knowledge wasn’t discovered until the 18th and 19th centuries.

One can’t so easily understand or forgive modern day physicians who practice such nonsense.

Fortunately, I don’t have to today, because instead I’ll be dealing with one Dr. Mark Wiley, who bills himself as a “doctor of both Oriental and Alternative medicine, best selling author, martial art master and international seminar instructor.” In other words, he’s not a real doctor. Wikipedia lists him as having a Ph. D. in Alternative Medicine from the Indian Institute of Alternative Medicine, in association with the Open International University for Complementary Medicine and the World Health Organizations; an O.M.D. in Oriental Medicine from the Philippine-Chinese Association of Tui-Na, Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine; a
Bachelor of Science in Applied Sociology from Drexel University; and an Associate of Applied Science (Small Business Management) from Camden County College. He’s apparently parlayed this woo-ducation into a thriving alt-med business called the Wiley Method, which all appears to be based on “balance,” whatever that means. So I guess it makes sense that he’s also promoting TCM nonesense like asking if “blood stagnation” is making you ill:

We all know that blood circulates in our bodies. But what you may not know is that aside from being a vital nutrient substance blood can also be a cause of pain in the body. One of the ways blood causes pain is when it becomes “stagnant.” That is, locations where blood becomes “static” (e.g., sluggish) in the organs and tissues.

He then lists these factoids as if they were some sort of evidence that blood stagnation is real:

  • 25.1 million Americans live with heart disease
  • 32% of Americans suffer hypertension
  • 12% of females over age 20 are deficient in iron
  • 16% of adults have high-cholesterol
  • 1 in 6 Americans contract arthritis
  • 26 million Americans, between ages 20-64, suffer back pain

OK, I suppose that if you stretch the metaphor of “blood stagnation,” you can (sort of) say that heart disease is due to stagnation of the blood, but that “stagnation” has a physical cause: blockage of coronary arteries leading to clots that cut off the blood flow to the cardiac muscle. As for hypertension and iron deficiency anemia, it’s hard to see how this can be “blood stagnation.” Ditto arthritis and back pain. High cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease; but in and of itself it does little or nothing to blood flow. Maybe “Dr.” Wiley will explain. Unfortunately, there’s no “maybe” about it:

Blood is formed by the essence of the food and beverages we consume. This essence is extracted by the energetic function of the spleen and stomach, which also produce qi or life force.

Once formed, blood circulates not only in the veins but throughout the body by way of the meridian complex. It is jointly controlled by the heart (which dominates blood and vessels and circulates it), the liver (which promotes the free-flow of qi, stores blood and regulates blood volume in circulation), and by the spleen (which controls the blood and prevents hemorrhaging).

Dr. Wiley flunks basic physiology. While it’s true that one can view blood as being “formed from the essence of the food and beverages” we consume, that is true only in the most trivial way. All of the building blocks of proteins, nucleic acids, fats, an polysaccharides that make up who we are are derived from simpler molecules, which in turn trivially have to come from somewhere. That somewhere is our food. As for the rest, it’s just vitalistic nonsense. Indeed, Dr. Wiley then states that blood stagnation can be caused by deficiency of stagnation of qi (that mystical, magical life “energy” that TCM postulates as the life force). It’s also supposedly caused by an excess of heat or cold in the blood itself. Convenient, eh? It can be cold; it can be hot; it can be a deficiency of magic. It all produces the same sorts of symptoms, which can be virtually any symptoms at all or any disease at all. Don’t believe me? Check out how Wiley describes the various manifestations of blood stagnation. A couple of examples follow:

Blood stagnation in the heart may cause palpitations, what has been described as “a suffocating sensation” in the chest, cardiac pain and a purplish-color to the lips and nails. It may also cause mania.

Huh? Where did the mania come from? In any case, if you have cardiac pain and purplish lips and nails, you are in serious trouble. Get thee to an emergency room STAT! Waiting around for someone like Dr. Wiley to help you will result in your winding up totally purple and pain-free, if you know what I mean and certainly with no further excess of heat. If you don’t know what I mean, I mean room temperature.

I’ll give Wiley credit for one example, though:

Blood stagnation in the limbs and body surface may cause gangrene, a local purplish or bluish skin color, localized swelling or pain.

Well, duh. If you cut off the blood supplie to a limb, it’ll become gangrenous. It’s one of the first things they taught me in surgery residency and before that in medical school.

And here’s my favorite:

Blood stagnation in the liver may cause hypochondriac pain.

I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but chuckle. One could just as easily say that “blood stagnation” anywhere can cause hypochondriac pain, because hypochondriacs are what TCM practitioners love. (I know, I know, he almost certainly meant this, but I much prefer my interpretation.)

The sad thing is that TCM is a major part of quackademic medicine. It’s infiltrating our medical schools, which should be bastions of science-based medicine. It’s being studied as though it were anything other than prescientific, vitalistic, faith-based practice, of which acupuncture is a major part. True, there might be some utility to some of the herbs used in TCM, but even that’s been pretty disappointing. Be that as it may, it’s not surprising that our old “friend” Dr. Brian Berman is heavily into TCM. So, apparently, is Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. It’s invading and metastasizing everywhere. That may not sound so bad, but once you know what TCM is, if you’re a science-based kind of person like I am, you’ll soon be just as disturbed and–dare I say?–as militant as I am.