The Root and the Branch

People often ask me if I can help them with a particular symptom, and I find that my answer is nearly always, “yes!” It’s true – acupuncture and the general Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach are often wildly successful in treating a great variety of conditions. This is because, as acupuncturists, we don’t treat only the symptom but the entire picture of what is happening in the body. The symptom, or manifestation of the “root” cause is often referred to as the “branch.”

To help explain this, I will give an explanation of how symptoms or conditions are viewed through the lens of TCM and how that differs from the experience most of us have at our MD’s office.

So, let’s say you suddenly have an annoying rash on your leg. You eventually reach a point where you’ve decided that it isn’t going anywhere on its own and you want some help. You see your MD, explain the issue and he or she prescribes you a topical steroid cream.

This treatment may work indefinitely, maybe for a few weeks, or maybe not at all. If and when it stops working, it is likely that your doctor will prescribe you a different topical cream or maybe something in addition, like an oral antibiotic or anti-fungal medication.

Of course this may not be everyone’s experience, but it is generally the norm. Either way, you see your doctor and are prescribed a treatment that is meant to directly act on the symptom that you are experiencing.

Now let’s say you come to see me with the same annoying rash. First we sit down and talk, likely for about 30 minutes. I will ask you for details about the rash and a number of other items – your diet, stress level, digestion, bowel movements, sleep, menstrual cycle (if applicable) and generally about your life.

And you will probably wonder, what does all of this have to do with this bumpy red area on my leg? I like to think of symptoms as our body’s way of getting us to pay attention. When something comes up – whether it be a rash, headache, insomnia, back pain or heartburn – it is your body’s way of saying, “HEY! Something isn’t right – please help me deal with this!”

Often it isn’t just about the rash or headache, but some other issue that is causing this particular symptom to emerge and bother you – the trick is to figure out what is going on in the background or deeper underneath.

In TCM, we think of a symptom as the branch and the underlying causality as the root. This is why, when coming up with a TCM diagnosis, I look at the whole picture of what is going on in your life. I’m trying to figure out not only how to treat the branch (or what specifically brought you in) but also the root (what is causing that symptom).

Further, this underlying cause will likely have a direct correlation to an imbalance in your body that has been manifesting in different ways for your entire life. We all have inherent weaknesses determined by our genetics and lifestyle, or our constitution, that determine how our bodies react to stimuli and inevitably fall out of balance.

Treatment aimed toward the root will help create a more balanced state overall, which will often clear up less noticeable manifestations of the imbalance. Patients will often mention that other symptoms have spontaneously resolved themselves after regular treatments. Common examples of this include digestion & bowel movement regulation, sleep improvement, pain relief & feeling generally more capable of dealing with stress.

This is one reason why I find TCM treatment to be so incredible – the end goal is not to simply get rid of a symptom, but to nudge the body toward an ultimate state of balance. Therefore, treatment aimed in the correct direction can successfully resolve any number of symptoms.

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