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Pediatric Acupuncture - treating common childhood ailments

By: Marc Sklar, DA, LAc, MSTOM

Who better to reap the benefits of preventative medicine then those most pure - children.

Children seem to gain large benefits from preventative medicine and when it comes to their reaction to Oriental Medicine, it's no different. Chinese Medicine has been treating children for centuries, and as it turns out Pediatrics is one of the medicines best specialties (since the Song Dynasty - 960-1279).

Our children are so precious to us and watching them be sick is difficult as parents.  Through the treatments of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine we can strengthen the child and decrease illness.

Strengthening the Digestive System to Treat Illness

Oriental medicine views the treatment of children to be extremely important, and when treating children the most important system to treat is usually the digestive system. A classic Chinese saying that expressed this is "xiao er pi bu zu" meaning, "Children's Spleen is often insufficient". The focus of the digestive system in Oriental medicine consists of the Spleen and Stomach systems.

According to Chinese medical theory, children's spleens and stomachs up to the age of approximately six are inherently immature (because they are still developing). That means they do not function as efficiently as a healthy adult's does.  Until then the digestive systems are weak and overworked, so it is not uncommon to see children complaining of various digestive upset from diarrhea to indigestion.

In Chinese Medicine these complaints can be classified as an accumulation of food. Children's digestion is easily damaged by poor diets and an unnecessary use of antibiotics. When antibiotics are used they kill the "bad" bacteria which are possibly causing the illness. Antibiotics simultaneously kill the "good" bacteria (flora) found in your intestines. This "good" flora is necessary for a strong digestive system and a healthy immune system. Persistent antibiotic use can lead to children have poor digestive systems or a recurring illness.


Parents might then ask, what is the best diet for my children? Children should be fed easy to digest foods, otherwise known as a clear and bland diet. This type of diet allows the child's digestive system to work more efficiently.

Infants should be feed breast milk above all else, as it is the best food for infants. So why breast milk? Breast milk has the proper antibodies necessary to keep a baby's immune system strong and functioning optimally. For more information on the benefits of breast feeding read the FDA information at

Even though breast milk is the optimal food for infants, a mother can still overfeed the infant with her breast milk. Parents should be careful not to overfeed as this could lead to an accumulation of food in the baby's stomach.

When solid foods are introduced, one should start with easily digestible foods, like cooked carrots and well-cooked grains such as cream of rice. Because the process of digestion in Chinese medicine is likened to a process of cooking and distillation, foods which are cooked are, in general, more easily digested than uncooked foods. In other words, cooking is pre-digestion. Therefore, infants and very young children do better when they are fed mostly cooked, mashed, partially predigested foods than when they eat uncooked, chilled, or cold foods. Chilled and cold foods "douse" the fire of the spleen and (make it difficult to digest the food.) Likewise, drinking too many liquids and especially with meals "swamp" the spleen. In addition, foods that Chinese medicine labels as very "dampening" also easily harm the spleen when eaten excessively. These include sugars and sweets in general, dairy products (and especially chilled dairy products such as cheese and yogurt), peanut and other nut butters, and bread.

What are some causes for disease/illness in children?

There are several factors that can contribute to disease in any person and the same is true of children. In Oriental Medicine there are internal and external causes of disease. The external causes are linked to natural phenomenon that the Chinese observed to be true and the cause of illness. These external causes are wind, cold, dryness, heat, and dampness. When these factors are experienced in an excess amount then they may cause illness. They may also cause illness if the child has a weak constitution leaving them vulnerable to illness.

Another common cause of disease is emotional factors, also known as the seven affects. Emotions are usually not a cause for illness in children, as they do not hold back from expressing their emotions. If children do go through emotional problems at home this can lead to illness and some examples of illness arising out of emotional disturbances are asthma, insomnia, urogenital disorders, and a number of mental illnesses.

As I mentioned above, diet is large cause for illness in children. Some dietary problems that may cause illness are too little food, too much food, irregular feeding, unsuitable milk, early weaning, and food allergies. All of these factors contribute to illnesses, as the digestive system is inherently weak in children.

Common illness treated with Oriental medicine:


Constipation is seen frequently in children, as their digestive systems are delicate. If a baby does not have a bowel movement for one day this is considered constipation. If this continues this is more serious then the occasional missed day and treatment should be sot out. There are two main causes for constipation in children. The first is an accumulation and overeating, irregular eating, and eating raw indigestible foods can cause this. As this causes more of a strain on the spleen and stomach systems it leads to the common pattern of accumulation. Constipation can also be caused by a weak spleen and stomach. This weakness can be acquired by poor diet, prolonged digestive upset and recurrent illness. The accumulation disorders respond quicker to treatment, as the child's digestive system is still somewhat strong. The same cannot be said for a child affected by a weak digestive system. The treatment for this is longer as the practitioner needs to work on strengthening the child's digestive system.


Parents know all to well the sound of their child coughing. A chronic cough can disturb the entire family. The child and parents are unable to sleep because the cough is keeping them up. Some of the diagnoses attributed to a cough are phlegm in the lungs, a weakness of the lungs are spleen, and a lingering illness. Seeing as we are speaking about the lungs when we speak about a cough it is not uncommon to see the lungs affected with this disease. Some of the factors that contribute to chronic coughs in children are eating phlegm-producing foods, unnecessary use of antibiotics, poor digestion, overtired, long term illness, and immunizations. When treating this illness acupuncture and herbal medicine are important but are not the only treatment. As with all childhood illnesses diet is as important as any other treatment.

Otitis Media

Otitis Media is a very common illness in babies and children. Ear infections are no fun for the child as the pain is extremely uncomfortable, and the parents are scared that their child might become deaf due to the infection. It is for this reason that parents rush to bring their children to the doctor to receive antibiotics, and if the problem persists to have tubes placed in the ear. I am sure that parents will be happy to hear that there are other treatments that can help treat Otitis Media without the side effects of western medicine.

Acute ear infections are usually attributed to a virus or bacteria affecting the ear. If the infection is caused by a virus western medicine has little to offer in the form of treatment, yet many times antibiotics are still prescribed. The treatment of otitis media with frequent doses of antibiotics can cause the pathogen to linger leading to chronic otitis media. Julian Scott, OMD says, "Alternatively the lingering pathogenic factor can be traced to an immunization, commonly the pertussis vaccine."

Regardless of the cause Oriental medicine has a good tract record for treating both the acute and chronic variations. The acute otitis media is much easier to treat with the child experiencing relief quickly. For chronic otitis media the child will feel relief with the treatment however, continued treatment is necessary to make a long lasting effect.

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic Rhinitis, also known as allergies or hay fever, can cause seasonal problems for children. The good thing about this illness is that it hopefully only comes once a year, the negative is that it can be debilitating for children when it does come on. The symptoms of nasal congestion, discharge and irritation, sneezing, red and watery eyes and headache to name a few can cause great problems for children. Parents will be happy to know that Oriental Medicine can make a great impact on this problem. Aside from diet which we have discussed in the past illnesses, the lung, liver, and spleen can be the center of the problem. The liver is quite often affected and you can usually determine this by irritability and a red face. The best time to treat this is a month before the symptoms usually appear. You can always see a practitioner when the symptoms arise, but if you are interested in preventing the symptoms from arising then treatment before the symptoms appear is best.
Hyperactivity, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Parents, teachers, friends, and family all suffer when children are hyperactive. Children can be very energetic, disruptive, rude and violent when they have this disorder. Hyperactivity has some clear diagnoses in Oriental Medicine, which is in contrast to western medicine. In conventional medicine there are few tools with which to help these children other than drugs, Oriental medicine makes large strides with acupuncture and herbal medicine.

The four main causes for Hyperactivity are Heat, Phlegm Heat, Weakness in the digestive system (spleen), and kidney weakness. When treating these patterns length of treatment may vary but usually children need to be seen 10 to 30 times. It is also important to be prepared for the child's response to treatment.

"Children may actually become a little wild and angry and yell during and after treatment." according to Scott. This response will diminish with continued treatment. As usual it is also extremely important to change the child's diet. A reduction in sugar, food colorings, junk food and dairy is necessary, along with a reduction in television and video games.

Common childhood conditions treated with Oriental Medicine:

  • Cough
  • Allergies
  • Fever
  • Asthma
  • ADD and ADHD
  • Urinary Tract Infections
  • Bed Wetting
  • And More

What treatment techniques are used to treat Children?

Parents are usually weary of bringing in their child to get acupuncture because of its association with needles. Children usually do not have a problem with needles. Regardless of the fear or not, not all treatments need to use needles.
Quite often an acupressure machine at the acupuncture point to send a small pulse to the area of need. This pulse feels like a small tapping and some children even feel like it tickles. Often with treat children become more and more comfortable with the experience.

Another important therapy for children is herbal medicine. Herbal medicine has been used for centuries in China and in the treatment of Children. Antibiotics are not always necessary and with herbal medicine you can bypass the side effects experienced from taking medication. Herbal medicine is used for a short period of time when treating acute conditions and longer when treating chronic diseases.

As you can see regardless of the illness - cough, diarrhea, hyperactivity - children's digestive systems need to be treated throughout childhood. The digestive system is the pivot upon which children depend on. As parents it is our responsibility to make sure we have control of our children's diets. Feeding children a proper balanced diet which consists of mainly cooked vegetables, grains, and fruit, and a minimal amount of raw fruits, fish, chicken, and meat is the best for their health. In the end one of the key ways to treat all childhood illnesses is to work on the child's diet. If you can change a child™s diet you can affect their overall health for their entire life.


Julian Scott and Teresa Barlow, Acupuncture in the treatment of Children, Eastland Press, Seattle, Washington 1999

Bob Flaws, The Essence of Chinese Pediatrics

About the Author
Marc Sklar is a board certified herbalist and expert Oriental Medicine Practitioner. He specializes in infertility, gynecology, pediatrics, and digestive disorders. Marc sits on the board of directors for the California State Oriental Medical Association. Marc approaches every patient with an open mind, compassion and a medically integrated perspective.

Mark Sklar practices in San Diego, California.


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