Finding the Pattern
All Chinese medical treatment, whether acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, gua sha, or herbal medicine is done to address a person’s pattern. This is different than targeting the person’s disease (as is done in biomedicine). If we seek the destruction of an illness we require a force to eliminate it. If, however, we seek to restore a pattern of functional movement, all that we require is a guide. This guide can be less forceful, but it must be precise. The cultivation of precision is the skillset of the Chinese medical practitioner. This skillset is practiced through a careful differentiation of the pattern.
Lets look at an example:
Two people catch a cold. Person A, has chills and fever, a slightly irritated sore throat, a headache on the sides of their head, and itchiness in the ears. Person B, has chills and fever, an intensely swollen and painful throat, and is sweating profusely.
Biomedically, these people may have the same virus attacking their systems. But in Chinese medicine, what is important is the pattern that such an illness presents within the individual. And in the example above, the pattern is different.
In person B, the intensely swollen, painful throat and profuse sweating indicate a heat pattern. In person A, the sore throat is less severe. The itchiness in the ears and location of the headache indicate that the illness has reached a different pathway (the Gallbladder or Shao Yang layer). The Chinese medical treatment will be different for each case, as it will tailor to the individual’s pattern.
As you can see, the pattern not only tells us about the disease, but also the relationship between the disease and the person’s constitution. This relationship is given a symbolic name with the terms discussed above (Example pattern: wind-heat invading the exterior). Treatment is given to principally address this relationship, and help assist the person restore their health (Example treatment principles: clear heat, vent wind, secure the exterior).
Choosing the Formula
To execute the above principles in the form of a treatment, a formula is chosen. A formula is a set of procedures that follow the direction of a treatment principle. In acupuncture, a formula is a list or set of acupuncture points, and the needling techniques of each point. In Chinese herbal medicine, a formula is a set of herbs given at a particular dosage and frequency of administration.
Chinese herbal medicine studies not only the effects of an individual herb, but pays particular attention to how that effect changes when herb A is combined with herb B. Herbs in combination can emphasize certain functional principles, or unlock new actions entirely.
The hot herb Fu Zi (Aconite) can be used to treat invasive cold patterns like neuropathy of the limb, by warming and dispersing the cold influence. But Fu Zi can only become a tonic for the heart, when it is combined with other sweet herbs like Gan Jiang (Dried Ginger) and Zhi Gan Cao (Prepared Licorice Root). In this case, Gan Jiang and Zhi Gan Cao also act to nullify the toxicity and harshness of Fu Zi, making the decoction or tea, safe to drink. While if you were to take Fu Zi by itself, the remedy might actually be dangerous.