New Help for the Ailments of Old Age

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with Acupuncture and Moxibustion

In Japan, North America, and other highly developed countries, the impact of a rapidly aging population is becoming a major social and financial concern. This is because the needs of a huge cohort of seniors puts a serious strain on the sustainability of the public finances for pension and health care systems, and each country is trying to grapple with Medicare for ever-increasing geriatric diseases as well. In North America, the so-called baby boomers who occupy the largest portion of the entire population are already becoming seniors, and this cohort seems to be seeking alternative solutions for treating various geriatric ailments.

Since the baby boomers in North America initiated the movement or boom of ‘natural therapy’ in the 1970s, they  now constitute a new breed of seniors who are willing to actively try all kinds of alternative therapies beyond conventional allopathic medicine. Therefore, acupuncture, moxibustion, and Chinese herbal medicine are viable options for them as they seek alternative treatments for their age-related health problems. This trend will become more conspicuous going forward.

Although it is difficult to define the exact age range of the elderly, here I refer to the age group of 65 years old and up. The aging process can vary widely from person to person depending on various factors such as individual genetic traits, lifestyles, eating habits, and more. However, in general the aging of the body gradually begins to be noticed during one’s late 40’s. And from the late 60s and on, various age-induced ailments start taking their toll. Here are the most common ailments among the elderly:

Respiratory diseases: chronic bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer
Cardiovascular diseases: hypertension, cardiac hypertrophy, angina pectoris, myocardial infarction, arteriosclerosis, cerebral hemorrhage, cerebral infarction
Digestive system diseases: gastric ulcers of the stomach and duodenum, cancers of the stomach, pancreas and colon, cholecystitis and gall stones, cirrhosis of the liver and a fatty liver
Urinary system diseases: prostate hypertrophy, chronic nephritis, urethritis and chronic cystitis, dysuria
Endocrine system diseases: diabetes, hyper- or hypo-thyroidism, menopausal syndromes, adrenal deficiency
Mental illness and brain disorders: Alzheimer’s disease, senile dementia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, insomnia
Skeletal system diseases: frozen shoulder, knee arthritis, chronic low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis
Eye diseases: cataract, glaucoma, retinopathy
Ear and nose diseases: tinnitus, hearing difficulty or loss of, chronic sinus problems, lack of smell

It is likely that elderly people get afflicted with not only one specific illness but several different conditions at the same time. As a result, it is quite common to see that many seniors are taking various prescribed medications daily to the extent of being overdosed or ‘drugged up’.

As an acupuncturist with 40 years of clinical experience, I have encountered all of these ailments and treated them with acupuncture and *moxibustion (*a traditional Chinese medicine therapy using moxa made from dried mugwort (Artemisia argyi) that includes the stimulation of an acupoint by the burning of a cone or cylinder of moxa placed at or near the point).

Unlike allopathic medicine, acupuncture and moxibustion hardly cause any side effects, and they are effective for restoring and activating the overall body functions. That is why we can treat almost any health condition, regardless of the label assigned to the ailment. However, the effectiveness of treatment differs widely depending on the type of disease, its degree or severity, the age and the physical strength of the patient, etc. In general, diseases that are designated as  incurable by modern Western medicine are also very difficult for us acupuncturists to handle because the older the patient becomes, the longer it takes for improvement and recovery from ailments.

The Role of Moxi in Folklore Medicine

It can be said that in my home country, Japan, acupuncture and moxibustion have been playing a central role, not only as a means of disease treatment but also as a preventive medicine in daily life, since ancient times. In particular, moxibustion therapy (that can be used easily and safely even by laymen) has been enjoyed in a variety of forms as a folk remedy nationwide, up to today. Even in the famous book of Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) written about 700 years ago by Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko, it is stated: “People over the age of 40 – *must be regarded to be old age at that time – should apply moxibustion routinely, especially on the leg acupoint San-Ri (ST36). Otherwise, you will be inflicted with dizziness and other diseases.”

During the Edo period of about 300 years ago, a famous Haiku poet and great traveler, Basho Matsuo, said: “Do not travel with a person who neglects applying moxibustion on the leg acupoint San-Ri (ST36),” and it was a common custom for the ordinary Japanese people to use moxibustion as a daily preventive tool in health management.

Degrees of Success in Treating Age-Related Conditions

As a rough guideline for the treatment of those age-related health problems with my approach to acupuncture and moxibustion, I categorize them as follows:

1) Ailments that can respond very well: Chronic bronchitis, gastric ulcer, duodenal ulcer, gall bladder inflammation (colecystitis), acute and chronic bladder infection (cystitis), urethritis, urinary incontinence, insomnia, frozen shoulder, chronic back pain, tinnitus
2) Ailments that respond well if they are in an early stage or mild cases: Osteoarthritis of the knee, rheumatoid arthritis, menopausal syndrome, high blood pressure, angina, depression, gout, diabetes, hypo- or hyperthyroidism, glaucoma, hearing difficulty
3) Ailments that can be helped substantially if acupuncture and moxibustion are applied as rehabilitation treatment: Stroke sequel such as hemiplegia, speech difficulty, aphasia, swallowing difficulties, ptosis, distorted face and mouth; post-operative complications such as pain, swelling and bruises after hip or knee joint replacement surgery
4) Ailments that cannot be cured but the patient’s suffering will be relieved and the quality of life will be enhanced greatly: Emphysema, arteriosclerosis, various symptoms associated with cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia, Parkinson’s disease, cirrhosis, chronic nephritis or concomitant symptoms of dialysis patients

As the majority of ailments of the elderly are chronic cases, it usually requires a long-term treatment plan. Also, the overall body function, especially that of the immune system, deteriorates further with aging. So it will be very important to use moxibustion more dominantly because of its great effect on the blood production, tissue regeneration, and activation of whole body function.

I usually apply both acupuncture and moxibustion together in any case; however, I use moxibustion (Japanese style direct moxibustion) more dominantly for the chronic ailments of the elderly.

Current Research

In recent years it has been revealed that acupuncture and moxibustion can improve the blood circulation in the brain and enhance its metabolic function. In animal experiments, it is also revealed that these two modalities can regenerate and activate the cerebral nerve cells to the extent that cognitive ability recovers considerably. This fact is now attracting medical attention because of its potential application for the treatment of various brain disorders. In fact in Japan, the leading country of acupuncture medicine along with China, a team of medical doctors of geriatrics have teemed up with acupuncturists to start a new project titled ‘Dementia Gold-QPD Training Course’ in which western medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion, Chinese herbology, geriatric nursing, and welfare education are incorporated as a professional training qualification course for the care of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia problems. This unique project has been expanding since 2010.

Since Japan has launched a new integrative medicine protocol as a part of geriatric medicine, other developed countries will certainly follow this trend soon.

In the future, people will recognize that acupuncture and moxibustion can help not only cure individual geriatric diseases but also relieve a variety of mental disorders, improve the quality of life, and contribute greatly to one’s well-being as preventive medicine. Along with this, besides regular clinical work, many other opportunities will open up for acupuncturists to work as medically networked members regarding home care of the elderly, nursing care facilities, geriatric departments in hospitals, etc. At the same time, we acupuncturists will be expected to be widely knowledgeable about geriatric medicine and the care of the elderly.

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