Chinese medicine puts the squeeze on Imagethief

Imagethief is a strapping manly-man, and spends long hours in the gym perfecting his Adonis-like physique. Occasionally, however, his enthusiasm gets the better of him, and he tries to hoist a few kilos too many. This happened to me about a month ago as I was doing plate-rows. At the apex of my set, something in my steely, well-honed trapezoidal went spang! and pain ricocheted down the length of my left arm.

I called a halt to the day’s strains, thinking that a week or so of recuperation was all that was necessary. Three weeks later, with phantom pains still coursing up and down my left arm and unable to sleep in either of the two positions that I am tolerant of, I finally dragged myself to my regular doctor in Singapore, where I was spending Chinese New Year.

After palpating me in various unsavory ways and making me bend my head into several unnatural positions, he rendered a verdict: a pinched nerve at the sixth cervical vertebrae.  He said I could either pay $500 for an MRI, or, since there was no loss of strength (this, I gather, would have been bad), I could go on anti-inflammatories for a couple of weeks and see how things played out.

I selected the cheap, pharmaceutical option. Going for the MRI at that stage would have been far too large a concession of vulnerability. As an American man, I have a battleship-strong sense of denial when it comes to medical issues. In fact, it was an heroic effort of will (no pun intended) just to make it to the doctor in the first place. Like most American men, I won’t go see a doctor unless a bone or major internal organ is protruding through my skin. And even then it’s a toss-up. Is there a good ball game on?

I did, however, make one extra concession to medical adventure. I agreed to go see my wife’s Chinese doctor.

And this raises another American medical prejudice. Americans are raised to believe that all medicine is Star Trek. If a medical therapy doesn’t involve nitrogen-cooled electromagnets or a particle accelerator and flat-panel video screens, it’s stone-age witch-doctor crap not worth pursuing. This maximal approach to medicine explains why America’s health system is such a dysfunctional wreck. When even stubbed toes require PET scans, something has got to give. When I lived in America, what gave was my bank account, under the onslaught of my insurance premiums. Freelance writers part-timing as radio producers to avoid starvation get to pay their own way, insurance-wise. That leaves little left over for such wastrel’s luxuries as “food” and “rent”.

Thus, going to see the Chinese physician was something of a leap of faith for me. I had been to his clinic with my wife before. It looked like Gandalf’s office: dusty, leather-clad tomes, mysterious charts of the human body covered with meridian lines and Chinese script, and shelf after shelf of cryptically labeled, dark-brown potions in equally dark-brown jars. Not a Star Trek medical device or Physician’s Desk Reference in sight.

Although it was Singapore, the doctor (or, more accurately, daifu) didn’t speak any English. I explained my symptoms in laborious Mandarin, with my wife occasionally helping me through the tricky parts. Accuracy is important in medicine, and doubly so when using a language where a single tonal difference can change the coruscating imprecation “fuck your mother” into the merely perplexing “dry your horse”.

After listening patiently to my explanation, the doctor arrived at a prescription that involved neither a horse nor my mother. Rather, it involved a course of moxibustion, or “cupping”. I grant you that “cupping” sounds like something where a horse might be involved, but I assure you that this is not the case. You are, perhaps, thinking of a “crupper”, which the leather strap that runs beneath a saddled horse’s tail. If so, you are either an equestrian or a bondage freak and, either way, have ventured into territory beyond the scope of this post.

The daifu asked me to remove my shirt, and then rubbed a film of of lubricating lotion on my back. This was the pleasant part of the procedure. The only pleasant part. As soon as I was nicely greased, the daifu took a hollow glass globe the size of a baseball and dropped an alcohol-soaked cotton swab through the thick-lipped mouth. He lit the swab, which flared and burned out rapidly, and then clapped the open mouth of globe onto the skin of my back.

Anyone who has ever performed the collapsing gas-can experiment will be familiar with the principles behind what happened next. In this old, grade-school science experiment you light a little alcohol or other flammable liquid inside a metal container, then screw an airtight top onto it. As the air inside the sealed container cools, the pressure drops and the pitiless math of Boyle’s Law takes over. The sealed container is slowly crushed by outside air pressure. Now, if the container is rigid enough to withstand the pressure, but covered by a flexible membrane, it is the membrane that will distort in response to the decreasing pressure in the sealed vessel. In this case, the membrane was me. A golf-ball sized gobbet of Imagethief was quickly sucked into the glass cup. The suction was surprisingly strong, and I had brief thoughts of my skin rupturing and my left lung exploding into the glass cup. If that had happened, I would have asked for my $15 back.

As a technical scuba diver, Imagethief is well schooled the concept of barotrauma. This is injury resulting from a pressure differential, a common risk in scuba diving. To date, Imagethief has suffered only one serious barotrauma: a ruptured eardrum self-inflicted when I clapped a hand over my ear following the nearby detonation of an explosive by Indonesian dynamite fishermen. More common, and generally less serious, is something called a “squeeze”. This happens when a diver fails to equalize the pressure in some internal airspace, such as a sinus or middle ear, or an external one, such as the airspace in a diving mask. As the water pressure increases during descent, the growing differential forces –or “squeezes”– tissue and fluid into the area of low pressure. Generally you feel this –trust me; you feel it– and stop descending before you are seriously injured.

Never in my life did I think I would pay someone to inflict a painful squeeze upon me, but that’s what I was doing.

Anyone who has lived in China or Singapore will probably have, at one time or another, seen someone with a pattern of round, red welts on their back. These are the marks left by regular moxibustion cupping (I have photos here and here), in which the cups are placed upon specific points on the back, and left there. That kind of moxibustion is for pussies. My wife’s family daifu is renowned in Singapore for his expertise in a technique in which a single cup is slid over the affected area to draw out the “wind” that, from a Chinese medical point of view, is invariably the source of all ailments. My wife swears by this technique, and has had her own sports injuries treated in this way on a few occasions.

Her pain threshold must be higher than mine. I now have a pretty good idea of what an orange feels like as it is peeled. Grease or no grease, it felt like the skin was being torn from my back as the doctor slid the globe up my trapezoidal muscle and left to right along the delicate supraspinatus. It was one of the most painful procedures that I have ever been subjected to, and I’m a veteran of two root canals, eight dental extractions (four under local anesthetic), outpatient neurosurgery on my hand and a hernia operation. After the first course was complete, leaving me breathless and sweaty, the daifu asked my wife something in Mandarin. “He asks if you can stand a stronger treatment,” she translated. Macho posturing immediately suppressed all other instincts, including my instinct to flee screaming from the office. “No problem,” I wheezed, like a teenager who’s voice has just broken.

As the daifu began the second course, I tried to mentally transport myself to another location. Blissful green fields. A rowboat on a calm lake. A spectacular, icy glacier. It didn’t matter. Wherever I visualized myself, I was accompanied by a burly, sweating medieval torturer intent on scourging my back. There was nothing for it but to endure the treatment in the here and now. It was clear that the daifu subscribed to the “after I do this to you, the pain you were complaining about won’t seem so bad any more” school of medicine. “Look,” he said. “You can see where all the old, clotted blood is being drawn out of the injury.” Not surprising.

Centuries later it was all over. I gingerly pulled my shirt on over my abused, stinging back. “Any better?” asked my wife, sweetly.

It wasn’t enough for the daifu to strip all the skin from the upper-left side of my back. He had to send a reminder of my misery home with me, in the form of a jar of noxious, brown liquid medicine decanted from one of the hundreds of mysterious, cryptically labeled bottles in his office. I was instructed to take one good swig, three times daily. It was the nastiest substance I have ever ingested, a potent combination of bitterness and herbal pungency like a combination of slivovitz, crude oil and potpourri. It made me want to cry the way I did when my mother made me take liquid penicillin for strep throat when I was seven. I had to have a water chaser standing by every time I took it. I carried it onto the flight back so I wouldn’t miss a dose, and I’m mystified as to why the security inspectors didn’t catch it, confiscate it and fine me for trying to bring a dangerous liquid onto the airplane.

Now, nearly a week later, I can report some improvement in my symptoms. Of course, given that I have been on a combination of moxibustion, bizarre herbal tonic and old-fashioned, western anti-inflammatories, it’s hard to tell what’s responsible for the progress. Would I dare subject myself to another treatment of moxibustion? The daifu told me that, in an ideal world, I’d be able to come back for another treatment a week hence. Now that I am back in China that will be difficult, unless the daifu can refer me to a trusted colleague here. He did, however, suggest that I come in for a repeat session when I am next in Singapore.

Only time will tell if Imagethief has the nerve to steel himself for another pass. The wind may be bad, but between that and being skinned like a rabbit, I might just stick with wind.

There, now. Doesn't that feel better?

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