Historical development of the pain concept (Treatment of Pain with Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture)

It is widely known throughout the world that both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can be used to treat pain. According to popular legend, about two thousand years ago an outstanding doctor named Hua Tuo had already started to use herbs and acupuncture to different kinds of pain (Hua Tuo c. ad 180). For instance, he used acupuncture successfully to treat an emperor who suffered from severe Toufeng (severe migraine headache). Dr Hua was also very skilful in using Chinese herbs that produced anaesthesia, and once opened the skull of a patient, drained some infected blood and a damaged skull fragment and finally successfully sewed up the wound. Another legend concerns a Mr Bian Que, a famous doctor of 5th century BC. He also successfully healed a son of the then emperor by opening his abdomen and removing a damaged section of the intestines.

The earliest relative systematic discussion on pain can be found in the Neijing or Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (1956). In this topic there is a topic devoted to the aetiology, pathology and symptoms of pain. For the first time here, Qi and Blood stagnation were considered to be the major causes of pain. The terms used in this topic to describe Qi and Blood stagnation included ‘retardation of Blood circulation’, ‘retardation of circulation in the Blood vessels’, ‘disorder of Qi and Blood’, ‘fullness of the Blood vessels’, ‘failure of Blood to circulate’ and ‘blockage of the Blood vessels’, amongst others. Its theory is still applicable to clinical practice. In addition, the Neijing distinguished 13 kinds of pain; however, most of these were considered to be caused by Cold, and only one kind by Heat.

During the Jin, Sui, Tang and Song dynasties, concepts about the causes of the pain continued to be based on the theory set down in the Neijing. In fact, right up until the Ming and Qing dynasties, most physicians still based their treatments on this same theory, although they made some corrections to it, to complete the known types of aetiology, pathology, symptoms and treatment. For instance, doctor Liu Hengrui mentioned in his topic General discussion on experience (1998) that exogenous invasion, emotional disorders and physical trauma can all cause pain. Besides these, Deficiency may also result in pain. He wrote: ‘the ancient people stated that there is no pain if there is free flow, and there is pain if there is blockage, but this refers only to the situation of Excess. If physicians followed only this theory in treating pain, this would be an error’ and ‘the pain is only one of many diseases; it must be treated according to the differentiation of the aetiology, thus there will be no mistakes’ (p. 141).

Yu Chang (1585-1664), a famous doctor of the Qing dynasty, pointed out in his topic Principle of prohibition for the medical profession (written in 1658, new edition 1999): to promote Qi and Blood circulation is the method only for Excessive cases. In cases of Exogenous invasion, it should be combined with the method to promote sweating; in case of Excessive retention, it should be combined with purging. But the pain may be caused by Deficiency and Excess, and the treatment here is not tonification and reduction. In principle, pain xoith distension and fullness is mused by Excess, whereas that without distension and fullness is caused by Deficiency. Pain with a dislike of pressure is the Excessive type; pain that is relieved by pressure is the Deficient type. The pain with a preference for Cold is mostly mused by Excess; pain with a preference for warmth is mostly mused by Deficiency. Pain that becomes worse after eating is mused by Excess; pain that becomes worse with hunger is caused by Deficiency. Pain with an Excessive pulse and rough breath is due to Excess; pain with a weak pulse and shortness of breath is due to Deficiency. Acute onset of pain in young and strong people is usually due to Excess, and pain that becomes worsened after purging is due to Deficiency.

Wang Qingren (1768-1831), another famous doctor, made a great contribution to the understanding of how to treat pain. He focused mainly on the treatment of painful diseases caused by Blood stagnation. The causes of Blood stagnation were discussed in detail in his famous topic Correction on the Errors of Medimi Works (1830, new edition 1991), in which several important prescriptions for painful diseases were given. For instance, Tong Qiao Huo Xue Tang Unblock the Orifices and Invigorate the Blood Decoction was used to treat headache caused by Blood stagnation, Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang Blood Mansion Eliminating Stasis Decoction could be used to treat chest pain due to Blood stagnation and Shao Fu Zhu Yu Tang Drive Out Blood Stasis in the Lower Abdomen Decoction was chosen to treat lower abdominal pain caused by Blood stagnation. These prescriptions are now widely applied to treat many painful diseases caused by Blood stagnation.

From the 1960s to 1970s, acupuncture was widely used both in preparation for and during surgery. It attracted the attention of the medical profession both in China and internationally because it could safely and effectively either reduce or entirely eliminate the pain usually associated with many operations performed on the head, chest, abdomen and in the limbs. Moreover, its use allowed the physiological functions of patients to remain at normal levels, and during the operation they remained conscious, and could therefore play an active role throughout the operation. Because most of the side-effects associated with chemical anaesthesia are avoided, the period of postoperative recovery is accelerated.

It is understandable that acupuncture is widely accepted within China. But how did acupuncture come to be so popular internationally? This was largely a result of US national media coverage of acupuncture when the People’s Republic of China started opening its door to the US and other foreign countries in early 1970s. At that time the columnist James Reston went to China with the delegation of President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to re-establish relationships with Mao Zedong and his government on Mainland China. James Reston wrote extensively in the popular press about the remarkable experiences he had had in China.His story quickly appeared in the media. Moreover, during that period visits to China by the general public became popular and during these many visitors saw demonstrations of the effectiveness of acupuncture generally. Such visits were subsequently written up in the Western media, capturing the public’s imagination and rapidly increasing the popularity of acupuncture in the West. However, what interested Western physicians and people most were those aspects of acupuncture that involved anaesthesia and pain control.

Besides acupuncture, treatments with herbs, moxibustion, massage, herbal pastes, cupping and QiGong are widely applied for the pain syndromes. Currently a lot of patent herbal products are used effectively for treating many kinds of pain. For example, Su Xiao Jiu Xin Wan Rapid Save the Heart Pill and Su He Xiang Wan Styrax Pill are good at treating chest pain caused by heart disease, and Tong Jing Wan Regulate Menses Pill is effective for treating dysmenorrhoea. In a word, more and more new herbal products and acupuncture devices are currently being produced for use in treating pain syndromes.

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