This June, I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 National Eczema Association Expo where I met 400 patients living with eczema, a bevy of compassionate western dermatologists, many researchers searching for a cure, an assemblage of product exhibitors and a genuinely well-organized association that supports this entire community.
But after three and a half days of presentations and opportunities to talk with many patients, I arrived at one resounding takeaway: the current western pharmaceutical eczema solutions help very few. The vast majority of patients do not get better and most spend a lifetime managing symptoms.
This was a somewhat shocking reality for me because, in Chinese medicine dermatology, I see the opposite. Most eczema patients see good results, the vast majority get better and only a small percentage do not completely heal. I reflected deeply on why this is the case and realized there are some fundamental differences in how Chinese medicine dermatologists diagnose and treat eczema versus the current western methodology. Here are the five major differences:
- Root-cause versus symptom. In western medicine, the treatment strategy is to manage each of eczema’s symptoms (i.e., itch, inflammation, infection, dryness). Recent/proposed drugs typically identify a specific biochemical factor believed to produce a particular symptom and each drug aims to shut that biochemical factor off. While these resulting drugs may provide relief, the reason the biochemical factor becomes unstable is not addressed. Therefore, the underlying cause of eczema is not treated. This is why patients typically must stay on drugs to manage their symptom(s). In contrast, Chinese medicine focuses on the root-cause. This medical perspective asserts eczema itself is one symptom of a systemic issue. Therefore, by identifying and treating the root-cause, then all the symptoms of eczema should resolve.
- Detailed diagnosis system. Despite the many different presentations of eczema, western medicine treats each case similarly as evidenced by the utilization of the same drugs/products prescribed for all cases (i.e., anti-inflammatories, immuno-suppressants, antibiotics, moisturizers). In Chinese medicine, there are 11 classifications of itch and eight patterns to identify the source of redness. Lichenification indicates 1 of 3 different issues. Weeping, oozing skin is sourced to three different causes. The distinctions go on. As such, the Chinese medical diagnosis system is much more detailed which lends itself to a more customized approach to treatment.
- Different presentations, different treatments. Chinese herbal medicine includes over 1000 different ingredients. Individually, they each offer a set of healing properties and combined, can provide even greater capabilities. By identifying the specific features of each patient’s eczema, Chinese medicine dermatologists can select the herbal ingredients that best address each issue and combine them to form a customized formula. Additionally, as eczema evolves and/or heals, formulas/ingredients can be changed to suit the differing needs of the skin.
- Location, location, location. In western medicine, eczema treatment is the same regardless of where the lesions exist. In Chinese medicine, eczema is treated differently if it appears on the hands versus the feet or appears on the upper body versus lower body. Early onset infantile eczema is treated differently than childhood and adult eczema because the presentation locations tend to be different. For example, infant eczema tends to center around the cheeks and scalp, extensors of the limbs but spares the diaper region; childhood eczema tends to move to the flexors of the limbs, spread to eyes, mouth, neck and torso. Adult eczema can appear in the nether regions and everywhere else not already listed, but can also cluster on specific body parts.Some Chinese herbs treat specific locations of the body. And specific herb preparations can alter the directional movement of an herbs’ active ingredients. As such, Chinese medicine dermatologists can match herbs to particular eczema locations.
- The Whole: body, mind & spirit. Chinese medicine is predicated on the notion that the body is a compilation of systems performing a myriad of functions but fundamentally working together in unison. An issue like eczema is not just a distressed barrier, but rather a distressed system that can in turn distress many functions. Lasting change occurs when we treat the whole body, not only one system or part. Because of this perspective, it’s not unusual for a Chinese medicine dermatologist to spend an hour (or more) talking to new patients about every aspect of their life and health to understand all contributing factors of that person’s eczema. Prescribed herbal formulas help the whole body heal. As a result, it is not unusual to see other seemingly dissociated health issues improve as the skin heals. It’s all related.
If you or someone you know is suffering from eczema and are interested in seeing a Chinese medicine dermatologist, your best bet is to find a practitioner who is a licensed acupuncturist (LAc) in your state, is an NCCAOM Oriental Medicine diplomate, has a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Dermatology diploma and ideally, has standing on the international Registry of Chinese Medicine Dermatology (RCMDerm). These practitioners have pursued extensive studies in Chinese herbology/TCM Dermatology and achieved the highest standards of accreditation.
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About the Author
Dr. Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, DACM, Cert. TCM Dermatology is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats eczema patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, is the Chair of the American Society of Acupuncturists Board of Directors, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Support Group sponsored by The National Eczema Association.