Old- school relief

Traditional medicine can indeed work where western medicine has failed.

By GRANT J. RILEY on June 08,2017 09:40 AM

Old- school relief

Photos: GRANT J. RILEY

Back in the 1980s in my home country, England, lively debates about healthcare were commonplace, challenging the then almost totally dominant ‘modern Western medicine’. Pharmaceutical treatment was regarded as the be all and end all of our healthcare needs. And rightfully so, to some extent. A medical revolution had indeed occurred, particularly in the post-war years, that saw an end to many diseases, ailments and inflictions. The preceding old-fashioned treatments were dismissed as ‘alternative medicine’; a type of quackery best left to witches. But I remember that statements from one side, such as ‘there have not been sufficient medical trials of plant medicine or acupuncture’, were met with responses such as ‘other than tens of thousands of years of effective practice!’

Thankfully the debate has moved on considerably since then, and the revival of the old knowledge has seen traditional medicines return to the West, as the ‘cure-alls’ of modern pharmacy have somewhat plateaued. Slowly, a healthier, combined approach to healthcare is evolving. Here in Vietnam, however, I have a lot to learn and am getting a slightly different picture than that of the Western healthcare system.

Old- school relief

Now, for the record, if I’m lying on a hospital bed with a life-threatening disease I’ll take the antibiotics, thank you very much. But if the ailment is less than life threatening, I’ll try anything that works, within reason!

I have suffered from a frozen shoulder for some years. It lives up to its name. Beyond severe pain, extreme discomfort, and loss of sleep, it really does feel as if my entire neck and shoulder region is actually frozen. In fact, the area in question can be very cold to the touch. Treatment in England involved a steroid injection just below the collarbone and above the shoulder blade. It was mildly painful, moderately distressing, and unfortunately 100% ineffective. The only winner in this scenario were the folks that sold the preparation to the doctor. As far as I was concerned, it was snake oil!

The suffering is intermittent and recently became unbearable once again. I sought out a masseuse, who in turn recommended a traditional therapist, not far from where I live in Hanoi.

I found the location, met the doctor, and through simple English quickly explained the situation. A swift examination of my shoulder region was self-explanatory, beyond the confines of language. I was immediately invited to remove my shirt and lie face down on a massage table.

My shoulder is frozen, so I guess it’s obvious that heat would counter the ailment. I am facedown but can now feel the glow of an infrared lamp on the affected zone. It’s quite pleasant. The therapist appears and quickly dabs pressure points on the neck and shoulder all the way down my arm to my thumb. I’m not sure what they have applied to the points, but I assume it is something akin to tiger balm, as another kind of warming sensation is felt. Then I am just left, facedown; all I can hear is the doctor in the other room chatting on his phone.

I relax, nearly nod off, and am being gently roasted. Just at the point of sleep the doctor suddenly re-appears and rapidly and somewhat aggressively pummels the aforementioned pressure points. Its brief, but extremely intense. I have to adopt breathing techniques to cope, as I’m on the verge of crying out for him to stop. But he does indeed stop abruptly and wanders off again! However, the instant relief I feel in the troubled zone is encouraging.

Old- school relief

Out of the corner of my eye I can now see the doctor in the kitchen. I make out that he has a large pair of stainless steel, surgical forceps in his hand, which are holding some kind of cigar-shaped ‘thing’ that he proceeds to ignite with a lighter. May I please remind the reader at this point: I am a foreigner, with only a little of the local language, in a completely unknown doctor’s clinic, receiving a completely unbeknown form of treatment. Soon after recovering from an extreme pressure point pounding, I am becoming fearful of what’s next!

Still relaxed from the heat of the lamps I become aware of a pleasant smoky aroma. The smouldering ‘cigar’ has been placed next to me and left to waft. It smells familiar, like herb sage, and immediately reminds me of the indigenous North American practice of smudging - an ancient ceremonial method of cleansing and purification by burning bundles of sage. I later investigate and ascertain that the burning plant is an old favourite of mine and common in the West - Mugwort. The tube is made from a similar and also well-known plant, Wormwood (used in the alcoholic and infamous beverage Absinthe). The practitioner returns and proceeds to hold the lit tube very close to the previously pummelled pressure points. This treatment is lengthy and takes considerable time. The heat from the tube is at times extreme. A few times I am fearful the doctor has lost his concentration, as the heating sensation is verging on a serious singeing. Just as I am about to call out the doctor presses his thumb on the point and instantly extracts the heat. The treatment follows what are known as meridian lines, a path through which the life-energy known as ‘qi’ flows.

I am left to rest. I eventually receive a final, gentler massage and return to my feet. There is instant relief from chronic pain. I return over the next week for a few follow up treatments. It’s a miracle. I am so relieved.

I talk with the doctor and he demonstrates other techniques, notably acupuncture. His therapy involves the familiar acupuncture needles, but connected to a machine that induces vibration, then the area is heated with the smouldering, herbal tube. It’s fascinating. I also enquire about a wall chart of plant medicine and I gather these are also an integral part of the treatments here.

Traditional medicine remains in Hanoi, but for how much longer? Who knows? But I see plant medicine at work every day in this city - we eat it! Those barely edible leaves on your plate of bún chả salad are bitters - to enliven your digestion by stimulating the liver. Many of the herbs keep away colds and flus and other common ailments. At times, when I’ve had a fever or other ill, Vietnamese friends have rushed over with a bowl of pig’s heart soup, with herbs in it, or brought lemons soaked in honey. Traditional medicine remains endemic within Vietnamese culture. With the current impulse to embrace all that is Western, one hopes that this vital knowledge and practice will be preserved.

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