A month after surgery to remove a uterine fibroid, June*, 44, continued to feel fatigued and her wound was slow in healing. At work, she was unable to concentrate, and at night, her sleep was restless.
She decided to complement the treatment she was receiving from her western doctor with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), consuming the herbs prescribed by her TCM physician twice a day. Within a month, she was fully recovered, and was no longer fatigued or uncomfortable.
While life-saving, surgery is an invasive procedure, and comprehensive post-surgical care can mean the difference between a quick or long-drawn out recovery.
The actual care itself depends on the type of surgery performed, but increasingly, TCM is playing a complementary role in aiding healing.
“Post-operative care in the hospital includes pain management and wound care. Western doctors look out for potential complications that may arise after surgery, such as bleeding at the surgical site, infection, and blood clots due to prolonged inactivity,” notes Eu Yan Sang physician Lin Jiayi.
TCM comes in after the patient is discharged, helping them regain strength and internal balance, building up their immunity, and speeding up the process to full recovery, she says.
Strengthening organ systems
In TCM terms, surgery causes the body to lose blood and, therefore, qi (vital energy), which leads to internal disharmony. Two sets of organ systems are particularly vulnerable to this disharmony: the spleen and stomach systems, and the liver and kidney systems.
When the spleen and stomach systems are affected, the patient may experience poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, constipation, muscle weakness and fatigue. When the liver and kidney systems are weakened, nourishment to tendons and bones is reduced, resulting in tremors, numbness in the limbs, body aches and stiffness in the joints.
“Chinese medicine and acupuncture can both help,” says Physician Lin. Alone or in combination, they can help strengthen organs, enhance blood circulation and improve qi, thus speeding up recovery and the healing of wounds, she adds.
The role of acupuncture in post-surgery pain reduction, in particular, has been the subject of great interest and several significant studies. A 2007 study published in the peer reviewed Canadian medical journal CMAJ noted that patients receiving acupuncture following knee surgery required fewer painkillers compared to the control group. In an earlier study, conducted in 2000, members of the University of Heidelberg’s Department of Neurosurgery found that acupuncture provided extended relief following lumbar disc protrusion surgery. “Classical acupuncture resulted in a significant reduction in pain that become increasingly stronger during the 6-hour study period,” the study noted, adding that placebo acupuncture led to the same early pain relief, “but declined thereafter”.
An important outcome of this need for fewer painkillers is the reduction of their side-effects on patients. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina who analysed the results of 15 clinical trials where patients received acupuncture before or during surgery found that this group experienced lower incidences of nausea (1.5 times lower), dizziness (1.6 times lower) and urinary retention (3.5 times lower).
In an interview with the media, Dr. Tong-Joo Gan, vice chairman of Duke's anaesthesiology department who presented the study, said that acupuncture was “generally applicable” to a number of different surgical procedures. "In the studies, we looked at abdominal procedures, orthopaedic procedures (and) gynaecological procedures,” he said.
Beyond pain relief, acupuncture applied before surgery can help patients relax both body and mind, says Physician Lin. “It also improves vital qi and strengthens the immune system, allowing patients to recover faster from the operation”.
Herbal medicines, meanwhile, can help accelerate healing by addressing weaknesses and restoring balance in the body. Herbs such as Huang qi (黄芪, Milkvetch root), Ren shen (人参, Ginseng), Bai Zhu (白术, Atractylodes Rhizome), Fu ling (茯苓, Poria) and Shan yao (山药, Chinese yam) boost qi, while Dang Gui (当归, Chinese Angelica Root), Re di (熟地, Rehmannia root), Bai shao (白芍, White Peony root), He shou wu (何首乌, Fleeceflower root) and Hong zao (红枣, red date) replenish blood and improve blood circulation.
Herbs can also help invigorate weak systems. Huang qi (黄芪, Milkvetch root), Ren shen (人参, Ginseng), Bai Zhu (白术, Atractylodes Rhizome), Fu ling (茯苓, Poria), Shan yao (山药, Chinese yam), Lian zi (莲子, Lotus seed) and Yu zhu (玉竹, Solomon's Seal Rhizome) are often used to strengthen the stomach and spleen. To nourish the kidney and liver, Dong chong xia cao (冬虫夏草,cordyceps), Gou qi zi (枸杞子,Wolfberry/Goji Berry), He tao (核桃,Walnut), Hei dou (黑豆,Black bean) and Hei zhi ma (黑芝麻,Black sesame) are often prescribed.
As always, it is imperative that patients seek the advice of a qualified TCM physician, and inform both their physician and their doctor or surgeon before consuming any herbs, supplements or medication, pre or post-surgery. Herbs with blood-thinning properties or which inhibit platelet function, for example, should never be taken before surgery as they can cause or increase post-operation bleeding.
But when used right, these herbs make you feel better faster and restore the flow of qi, says Physician Lin. “Combine this with sufficient rest and a positive attitude, and you’ll be well on the road to recovery.”
*Not her real name