The scope of Chinese Medicine is much larger than the practice of acupuncture. Although acupuncture is the most well known therapy in the West, bodywork techniques (such as tui na and acupressure), movement therapy (tai chi and qigong), and dietary/herbal support are included under its umbrella as well. In the United States, the national accreditation body for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine provides separate certification examinations for Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, and Oriental Bodywork.
There are basically two types of Herbal Medicine practice. Practitioners who engage in focused study on Oriental Herbal Medicine and receive national certification are qualified to create “from scratch” herbal formulas that are specifically tailored to treat an individual client. Such practitioners keep a supply of various herbs in stock, and create a formula as either a tea, tincture, or pill right there in the office.
Most western acupuncturists who work with herbs rely on Chinese Patent formulas. A patent formula refers to a blend of herbs that has been used for centuries to treat common ailments and conditions – similar to our “over the counter” category of medications. Skillful herbalists have adjusted some formulas over the years in order to accommodate the specific needs of contemporary western patients, but the on the whole these formulas remain true to their ancient roots. Patent formulas come in pill form (some are sugar coated – a concession to modern times!) or as a concentrated liquid tincture. They are manufactured in the United States and are available to your acupuncturist or herbalist from several sources.
The most commonly prescribed patent formulas are those that address acute conditions such as colds, the flu, sinus congestion, and the like. They are prescribed according to a patient’s symptoms, and used for a very short period of time, usually not longer than seven to ten days.
There are also herbal formulas that are used for chronic health concerns. These are known as “tonics,” or “constitutional” formulas, and are taken for an extended period of time (several months or longer).
In my practice, I use a very few Chinese patent formulas, typically during the winter months for my clients who tend to catch colds easily. Occasionally I will use a constitutional formula. Although I work with herbs rarely, I am happy to make referrals to local herbalists. We are fortunate, both as practitioners and patients, to have Chinese herbal medicine and patent herbal formulas available to us as healthcare options.