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Growth of Chinese Medicine in USA

As a fourth generation Chinese medicine practitioner, acupuncture and herbal supplements, for the last 25 years in San Mateo and greater San Francisco area, I have seen the evolution of Chinese medicine first hand. Although it has been practiced for thousands of years in the Asia and is a well respected and widely adopted branch of health and wellness industry, in the west it is just starting to get into the mainstream.

In the 19th century, Chinese people migrated to the United States to work on the transcontinental railroad and the California Gold Rush. With them came Chinese medicine, which was then practiced exclusively in Chinese communities. That remained the case until late 1970’s until James Reston, a New York Times reporter, who got introduced to the benefits of acupuncture during a visit to China, wrote about his own personal experience and the benefits he observed.

Key Milestones

1972---President Nixon’s visit to China promoted interest in Chinese culture and opened new avenues of exchange. Traveling with Nixon, a New York Times columnist, J. Reston, reported benefits of an acupuncture treatment he received while in China. After an emergent appendectomy, Reston had acupuncture, which successfully relieved his post-operative gastrointestinal discomfort. His praising account of the experience and the featured TV shows about surgical operations with acupuncture anesthesia in China were widely publicized and prompted a great interest both among the public and the medical establishment.

1992---NIH (National Institute of Health) established the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM). It greatly promoted the research and regulation of alternative medicine.

1993---Dr. David Eisenberg et al. at Harvard University conducted a study that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine (Eisenberg et al.1993). The article showed that approximately one third of Americans used alternative medicine in 1990. The study sparked further interest and research activities.

1994---FDA (Food and Drug Administration) passed the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA), (FDA 1995). DSHEA regulates herbs as dietary supplements. Like vitamins, herbs only need to meet the standards of dietary supplements to be sold on the market and are not subject to the rigorous regulations applied to standard drugs. This act greatly promoted the development of herbal medicine in the U.S..

1996---FDA reclassified acupuncture needles upgrading the supplies from Class III, experimental use, to Class II, general medical use (Moffet 1996a, Villaire 1998).

1997---NIH successfully sponsored an Acupuncture Consensus on Acupuncture Efficacy. The meeting confirmed the efficacy, application and safety of acupuncture (NIH 1998, Villaire 1998).

1998---In October, OAM was renamed as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) with increased budget.

1998---In November, several major American medical journals (Journal of the American Medical Association, Arch. Intern Med. et al.) joined forces and published about 90 articles on alternative medicine. That event promoted alternative medicine to a new level of development and identified it as an area in need of further research. The journals acknowledged the significance of complementary medicine, described some of its potential uses, and called for further exploration. Attention was called to regulation and safety of complementary treatments.

1999---Government-sponsored Botanical/Dietary Supplements Research Centers are proposed (NIH 1999).

Evolution of Chinese Medicine

The types of alternative medicine most used include relaxation exercise, herbal medicine, massage, chiropractic and acupuncture. They are used most often for chronic medical problems such as pain related conditions (headaches, neck and back problems, arthritis); stress related conditions (depression, anxiety, and insomnia), fatigue, allergies, lung problems, digestive problems and high blood pressure.

Among the plethora of styles seen in the U.S. – including traditional Chinese acupuncture, French energetic acupuncture, auricular acupuncture, Korean and Japanese acupuncture, five element theory and myofascial or tender point-based acupuncture -- CM acupuncture is the classic form from which other styles originate and borrow from.

Confusion, skepticism, Acceptance

The field of alternative medicine in the U.S. has undergone a tremendous growth in the last decade. Individual branches of CM have entered the mainstream at different rates with acupuncture leading the progress. Despite making some strides, the field continues to be in a state of flux. The merger of CAM and conventional biomedicine is ongoing in diverse ways and in different settings. New data about popularity and efficacy of alternative therapies compete with reports of side effects, failed expectations and warnings of quackery. As such, the field of alternative medicine is seen by some as an area of great promise and opportunity and by others as untested waters, murky and deceiving.

After a long period of getting the cold shoulder from mainstream physicians, CAM therapies are starting to be acknowledged by the American medical establishment. The interphase between conventional and alternative medicine is created in several areas which include research, medical education, and clinical practice.

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