A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHINESE MEDICINE DERMATOLOGY

By Dr Erikson

If you were to wake up one day and see that your skin was covered in a strange rash, you would probably rush off to your doctor (GP). He may look at it and declare that he doesn’t know what it is, or how to treat it, and would refer you to see a dermatologist. Now read this quote taken from a text written 2000+ years ago in ancient China. “Whenever those in the state are afflicted with [skin] illnesses, with ulcers on the head or with wounds to the body, he [the chief physician] visits them, and then sends them to physicians with an appropriate specialty to cure them.” (Rites of Zhou, 300-200 BCE). It sounds pretty similar to our modern society, doesn’t it?

The dermatologist, known as the “Yang Yi” (sores doctor), is one of four primary medical specialties (dietitian, veterinarian, and internal medicine doctor were the others) practiced since at least the 2nd century BC in China, thus making it one of the oldest continuously-practiced specialties in the world. To this day, many Chinese medicine dermatologists still utilize the medical knowledge and treatment strategies that were first developed many thousands of years ago.

One thing that has remained common to both the modern and ancient practice of Chinese medicine is the use of herbal medicines, taken internally, to treat skin disease. Recipes for 52 Ailments, a text found in the Mawangdui tomb of Hunan province, which is believed to reflect the medicine of 300-200 BC, contained one of the earliest references to an herbal medicine mixture used for the treatment of skin disease, “Altogether seven [herbal] substances … For ju abscess of the flesh … Combine and put one large three- fingered pinch into a cup of liquor. Drink it five or six times a day. Wait for it to desist.” Treating the inside to affect the outside is a core belief in Chinese medicine dermatology, one that has persisted for thousands of years.

When I trained in the hospital in China, I had the opportunity to visit the museum where the contents of the Mawangdui tomb are displayed. I remember the feeling of awe that swept over me, seeing the many different herbal medicines found in the tomb, and thinking to myself, ‘I still use that herb, and that one, and that one.’ After more than 2 thousand years, many of those herbal medicines prove to be important now, just as they were then. As the saying goes, good things never die!

Throughout history, Chinese medicine physicians have been very observant of what we now call the prognosis of a disease. A good example is found in the earliest text dedicated to Chinese medicine dermatology. Liu Juan Zi’s Formulas Inherited by Ghosts (479 to 502 AD): “Besides like what you say, I still do not know the natures and names of welling and flat-abscesses; the places where they arise, the form and appearance of the examined symptoms, whether or not they [can] be treated, and the time intervals of life and death. I wish to hear about these, one by one.” I think about this ancient quote with every new patient I see, as it helps remind me to be diligent with my diagnosis and treatment expectations.

Some of the skin diseases plaguing our world today may have first been seen hundreds of years in the past. An example would be psoriasis, where descriptions found in the 6th century text, Treatise Regarding the Origin and Symptoms of all Diseases, sound remarkably similar, “Dry dermatosis is itchy with dry skin and a discernible border. When scratched white scales are formed.” If this truly was psoriasis, then it shows the Chinese have been treating this condition for at least 1500 years! That is a lot of years of clinical experience, which would help explain why physicians in our modern times tend to have good results when using herbal medicines for the treatment of this very stubborn disease.

Being one of the world’s oldest medical specialties, the practice of Chinese medicine dermatology has become increasingly well respected throughout the world. Many physicians are now aware of the challenges faced when treating skin disease, understanding the detrimental effects that steroids and antibiotics, when overused, can cause. Herbal medicines are proving, time again, to be a very safe and efficient option.

Dr. Erikson is a Registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine who specializes in the natural treatment of skin disease. He may be reached by phone at 778.886.1180, or through his website at www.drerikson.com