How traditional Chinese medicine helps in tackling COVID
The rise in global health crises have put traditional medicines back on the map
1 Feb 2023

In recent decades, traditional systems of medicine have received increased attention and gained popularity around the globe. According to some estimates, more than 10 million acupuncture treatments are administered annually in the United States. In China, although Western medicine is widely available, many people choose to look for relief and healing by seeing a doctor of zhongyi (Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM). In 2009, 67% of Swiss citizens voted to accept TCM as a complementary medical practice to be covered by health insurance plans.

I met Dr. Dong Hongguang, an expert on integrative medicine and member of the WHO Expert Advisory Panel on Traditional and Complementary Medicine. Dr. Dong gave me a comprehensive overview of how Chinese medicine is applied in Switzerland and around the world, and specifically, on the role of TCM in addressing COVID-19, in treating COVID patients and in post-COVID recovery.

TCM differs fundamentally from Western medicine. With a long history of more than 2,000 years, TCM features a unique theoretical and practical approach to health, with the key aim of keeping the body in balance. In treatment, it makes use of various methods of intervention, such as Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion, tuina and qigong, which may be applied separately or in combination. Acupuncture or fire moxibustion on human acupoints is used to treat diseases. According to TCM theory, the flow of qi in the meridians can be improved by stimulating acupuncture points, thus bringing balance to the body. 

As the concept of a virus does not exist in TCM, COVID is not treated from that standpoint. Dr. Dong believes that pathogens have no way of invading the body when there is sufficient healthy vital qi (a Chinese word for the energy which circulates inside the body), which can explain why many people who contract COVID remain asymptomatic. Based on this fundamental principle, acupuncture is used to increase the vital qi. For example, in TCM, headaches experienced during and after COVID are a symptom regarded as a blockage inside the body. When acupuncture is used to treat this symptom, it helps to unblock the body’s vital energy, thereby relieving the headache or reducing the sensation of pain. Fatigue is another symptom which shows that there is a lack of vital energy in the body. With the use of acupuncture, sometimes together with TCM herbal treatments, the vital energy can be replenished. 

Some 30-40% of patients experience chronic coughing or shortness of breath after recovering from acute COVID-19. According to TCM, this is because the upper respiratory channel, especially the lung meridian, has been attacked. Acupuncture can be used to replenish the vital energy in the lungs, thus relieving the coughing and speeding recovery. 

Dr. Dong says that based on his research and practice, TCM, especially acupuncture combined with herbal treatments, has great potential and has been met with considerable success in restoring the vitality and the normal functioning of the body of patients who suffred from COVID and in tackling symptoms related to long COVID. According to some research, COVID patients remain symptomatic for an average of 40 days after contracting the disease, but the actual situation may be worse. Although scientists still do not know why symptoms or complications last so long or remit, Dr. Dong points out that a febrile disease such as COVID can weaken the body’s qi and impair its fluid functions. It is therefore essential to restore the body’s qi and to replenish its fluids to address any lingering pathology. 

Looking forward, Dr. Dong is hopeful that TCM can contribute more fully to addressing many of the current health issues and challenges we face today, including COVID. He has been working for 30 years to integrate TCM with Western medicine to achieve the best possible healing results and is very pleased to see increasing openness and awareness of its potential to play a part in enhancing health and well-being. 

Dr. Dong also spoke briefly about some of the other areas where TCM has been integrated with Western medicine. When he first arrived in Switzerland, he joined the team in the Department of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) to explore the use of TCM in treating many complicated and difficult conditions, including premenstrual syndrome, infertility, menopause and pelvic pain. The team was able to increase the success rate of pregnancy for women undergoing assisted reproductive technology, by using acupuncture. Acupuncture has also proven useful in addressing menopausal syndromes by providing relief to symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia and mood swings. 

TCM has also been widely used in pain management. Since 2018, Dr. Dong has been working in the multidisciplinary centre for pain management at the Pain Clinic of the Hôpital de la Tour, in Meyrin. Integrating TCM, especially acupuncture, with Western medicine, the centre is able to diminish both chronic and acute pain. TCM can also help with problems of the digestive system, immune system dysfunctions and psychogenic problems such as stress-related syndromes. 

The Sino-Swiss Centre for Traditional Chinese Medicine was established by Dr. Dong in Meyrin in 2018 in collaboration with the World Federation of Acupuncture-Moxibustion Societies (WFAS) and Shaanxi University of Chinese Medicine to meet increasing demand for TCM and integrative medical care, and it has achieved tangible results. This pioneering and leading centre for TCM offers integrative medical care in different areas, including long COVID treatment, reproductive health, pain management and sports injuries, and it also provides supportive treatment for cancer patients and anti-ageing treatments. 

With this multidisciplinary and unifying approach, Dr. Dong aims to further enhance the health and well-being of patients, bringing health care to the next level. 

* Julián Ginzo is a member of the Editorial Board of UN Today.
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