When an organ plays out of tune
The human body is composed of several vital organ systems that work together in unison for our daily function. Numerous lifestyle factors and environmental exposures contribute to increased burden on individual or multiple organs in the body. The excess demands placed on our organs can weaken the body, exacerbate a current condition, present as new symptoms and eventually lead to a disharmony in overall health.
Traditionally there are two schools of thought around disease and the development of symptoms. From a Western science perspective, there are 10 major organ systems found in the human body. When an organ is damaged, there should be clear symptoms and changes found in lab values or observed with diagnostic imaging. This approach is very linear; A and B causes C and D. Individual symptoms are analyzed and dissected until causal links are found to be able to make a diagnosis. Blood work should show tissue damage to the specific organ. While this approach can be effective, it may not always work in explaining your symptoms. A 1989 study revealed the inadequacies of diagnostic testing for many common complaints including fatigue, dizziness, headache, edema, back pain, insomnia, abdominal pain, etc. From the 567 complaints examined, an actual cause determined by lab testing was found in only 16 percent. Treatment was provided for 55 percent of symptoms and the outcomes were often ineffective; merely 164 of the 307 symptoms improved. The study suggests that evaluation and management of individual symptoms are not universal for each person and should be refined. Have there been occasions where you have noticed changes in your body, mood or energy yet medical doctors were not able to find a problem (all your lab values appear normal)? From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, a weakened organ displaying symptoms will often not show any changes to labs or blood work. TCM organs hold a different meaning than the mainstream medical approach.
The two schools of thought have different approaches to understanding symptoms, disease and health. The modern medical belief of health is often considered to be the absence of disease; blood work is normal therefore you are healthy. The true definition of health encompasses the body as a whole: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”. This definition of health was actually drafted by the World Health Organization in 1946 and still remains a subject of controversy. This view does correlate with the TCM measure of health that evolved over 5000 years. Parallels can be drawn between each view of health and their motivations for treatment. Throughout history, payment for each visit to a medical doctor was expected for eliminating the disease. In ancient times Chinese doctors were paid to keep their patients healthy and were not given payment if their patient became ill. During the Zhou Dynasty 3000 years ago, doctors wore divided into different groups according to their responsibility, ji yi (doctors for curing internal disease) yan yi (doctors for external disorders), shou yi (veterinary doctors) and shi yi (dietetic doctors). Various doctors had to undergo examinations at the end of each year, judged in terms of the effectiveness of their treatments, to determine their salary. The reward system for these examinations was: full salary for a 100% cure rate, and decreased salary based on the percentage of treatment failure. Therefore doctors were urged to improve their medical skill in order to achieve better compensation for their profession. One approach again looks at the presence of disease while the other looks at total health and the goal of attaining optimal health.
In TCM there are 5 major organ systems and 6 minor systems. Each organ system has an effect on another organ system when it becomes imbalanced. These organs do not actually refer to the specific tissue as an individual physical unit, but rather the interrelated functions associated with it. For example, damage to the Western (science) liver will show increased liver enzymes and serious changes to its structure. A weakened TCM liver may appear as changes to the eyes and vision, anger and emotional frustration, menstrual difficulties or digestive difficulties. In TCM, the organ systems are all connected and more than one organ can be used in treatment. In addition, the weak and diseased organs also hold different meanings. In Western medicine, these terms are often used interchangeably; diseased organs are weak and understood to lead to illness. In TCM, weakened organs can lead to a disharmony in health although these organs may or may not be diseased. A diseased organ alternatively may not appear weak. For example, a cancerous lesion found in the liver may not display decreased function as the organ system may have compensated. Recognizing these relationships in organ function is important in understanding organ pathology. Chinese methodology was developed over many thousands of years by considering the person as a whole. Therefore each sign and symptom is used to establish a complete picture before a diagnosis and treatment plan is made. The root cause of all the symptoms is treated in TCM instead of chasing individual symptoms.
Our daily lifestyle and environment can place a great deal of physical, mental and emotional strain on the body. While there are two approaches to understanding organ systems and their relationships to symptoms, multiple diseases can result when organ function begins to weaken or is damaged from increased demand. It is important to maintain optimal health to strengthen the immune system and protect the body from developing pathology.
- Kaptchuk, T. The Web that has no Weaver. Congdon & Weed, Inc. New York, New York. 1983.
- Kroenke, K. & Mangelsdorff, AD. Common symptoms in ambulatory care: incidence, evaluation, therapy and outcome. American Journal of Medicine. 1989; 86(3):262-6.