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Traditional Chinese Medicine & The Treatment of Children

By: Antonia Balfour, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., Dipl.CH

Recent media attention has focused on the flagrant overuse of antibiotics causing increasing numbers of resistant strains of bacteria. Consequently, more and more people are discovering herbs and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a safe, effective alternative for the treatment of many childhood illnesses.

When Brennan Delaney celebrated his third birthday, his doctors were on the verge of inserting drainage tubes in his ears to deal with his chronic ear infections.

"Every four weeks or so we'd be back at the doctor's office picking up another course of antibiotics," recalls Brennan's mother Jeannie. "Amoxicillin became like a staple in our household. After a while Brennan couldn't stand swallowing the thick, pink liquid. Every time he saw it coming he'd try to bite through the spoon. His condition was not improving."

In desperation Jeannie decided to give Chinese medicine a try. "I hated to put him on yet another course of antibiotics and dreaded the thought of tubes being put in his ears," said Delaney.

When a friend suggested that she take Brennan to an acupuncturist, Jeannie was a little hesitant at first. "My initial reaction was a frightening image of needles being stuck all over my little boy."

Actually there were no needles involved at all. Brennan's ear infection was treated with a customized herbal formula as well as herbal ear drops. Jeannie was taught some techniques used in tuina massage (a massage style used in TCM).

A crucial part of treatment was for Brennan to follow dietary guidelines which would help prevent future recurrence of the infections. He was to completely avoid all greasy and fried foods and eliminate foods which Chinese medicine looks at as difficult to digest like the dairy products and large amounts of sugar he'd been eating.

Within two days Brennan's earache was gone. He continued taking Chinese herbs for several months to prevent a recurrence and never did end up having tubes put in his ears.

"At first I was surprised at the positive results using herbs," said the impressed Delaney. "But then the acupuncturist reminded me, these treatments had been used in China for thousands of years."

Both Western doctors and TCM practitioners are working to educate the public about overuse and misuse of antibiotics as well as the alternatives to antibiotics. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that one-third of the 150 million prescriptions written for antibiotics each year are unnecessary, resulting in bacterial strains that become tougher than the antibiotics being used against them. Children are among the patients most susceptible to these antibiotic resistant "super bugs".

TCM practitioners specializing in pediatrics caution parents to save antibiotic use for only when it is truly necessary. They advise parents to first try less drastic methods such as Chinese herbs. Often herbs will be all it takes to conquer the most common pediatric infections. If the child does need stronger medication, a skilled pediatric herbalist will refer the child to a medical doctor.

Chinese herbs are prescribed in individualized formulas which are custom written to suit the needs of each child. These formulas typically consist of anywhere between four and fifteen herbs. Many herbs have anti-bacterial or anti-viral properties while others work to promote the body's innate ability to heal and recuperate. Herbal formulas can be very effective in the treatment of acute illness as well as in preventing illness when there is a history of chronic infections and antibiotic use.

In a child with asthma, for example, one formula is used in the remission period and a different formula is used when there is an acute attack. Both these formulas can be used together with western medications. Very often, parents will find that the asthma attacks are occurring much less frequently and that the child's lungs are becoming stronger after adding herbs to their child's medical regimen.

Although they do not have the pharmaceutical concentration of Western drugs, herbs are still powerful medicines. It is very important, especially in the treatment of children, that herbs be prescribed only by a licensed professional. The California Acupuncture Board (the state governing board for practitioners of Chinese medicine) requires extensive training and examination in Chinese herbalism as part of the licensing process. Side effects of properly prescribed herbs are uncommon, and if they do occur are quite mild.

Together with tuina massage and nutritional therapy, Chinese herbs are used to treat conditions ranging from colic in babies to frequent colds, asthma, and ADD in older children. Acute and chronic coughs are the most common conditions seen by TCM pediatric practitioners. Different herbal formulas will be chosen depending on whether the cough is moist or dry, barking or weak. Certain Chinese herbs will actually strengthen the lungs when they have become weakened and irritated by a long-term cough.

Differentiating the qualities that go along with a symptom such as coughing is part of establishing the child's "pattern of disharmony". The "pattern of disharmony" is a diagnosis used in TCM which takes into account not only physical symptoms, but also the child's emotions and individual constitution. There are four methods used to go about establishing this diagnosis: asking, looking, listening, and palpating.

Asking involves questioning the child and parent about physical and emotional signs and symptoms. Other questions about such things as sensation of temperature or sweating may be asked in order to assess the child's constitution. Looking includes looking at the child's facial complexion, color, and tongue. In babies, the veins at the root of the nose and on the forefinger will be observed for color or distention. The practitioner will listen to the quality and strength of the child's voice and breathing. Palpation includes gently touching the abdomen, acupuncture points, or areas of the body where there is pain, but primarily refers to the practice of feeling the pulse. The quality of the pulse gives important information with regards to a child's constitution.

To understand a child's constitution in TCM terms, one should first look at the theory of "internal organs". The TCM definition of an internal organ is very different from the Western concept. In Western medicine, an organ is a physical, anatomical object. In Chinese medicine, each internal organ encompasses much more. There is an anatomical structure, but there is also a corresponding emotion, tissue, sensory organ, color and element.

In addition, 12 of the internal organs correspond to the 12 main acupuncture meridians (or channels) that run through the body. There is qi (or energy) flowing through each meridian. If an internal organ is out of balance, the qi of that organ will be damaged.

The TCM internal organs which are commonly affected in most typical childhood illnesses are the Spleen, Lung, and Liver. Damage to the qi of these internal organs results in such problems as digestive complaints, respiratory illnesses, and temper tantrums.

Children tend to outgrow many common pediatric diseases as they mature and develop and the qi of their Lung, Spleen, and Liver becomes stronger.

Because TCM is a holistic medicine, healing focuses on balancing the qi of the internal organs by taking into account both physical and emotional symptoms. Children are generally more susceptible to getting sick, but they are also quicker to heal. For most common pediatric complaints, complete healing can be attained through herbal medicine, dietary changes, and the use of simple tuina massage techniques. The goal of all pediatric treatment is to restore balance and harmony to a child.

About the Author:

Antonia Balfour is an acupuncturist and herbalist running the Balfour Healing clinic in Pacific Palisades, California. Her interest in Chinese medicine emerged when she was treated with acupuncture while living in Taiwan. Originally from Florida, Antonia moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Master™s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Yo San University, where she graduated with highest honors.

One of Antonia™s passions is educating the public about the use of Chinese medicine as a holistic health modality. She has written numerous articles on women™s health for newspapers, journals, and websites and has lectured for non-profit organizations such as Trinity Care Hospice and LA Help. She has also appeared on local and national radio programs focusing on healthcare.

More information can be found at

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