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May 6, 2023

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Treating head or feet but failing to help the patient

TREATING the head or the feet has always been the question for doctors of traditional Chinese medicine.

TCM had its roots in primitive society, and its doctrines appeared about 2,500 years ago. It was based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang and the Five Elements — water, wood, metal, fire and earth — which were used to explain everything in the universe, including the interaction between internal organs of human beings.

TCM focuses on a holistic approach to understanding normal functions and disease processes, emphasizing both prevention and treatment of illness, and seeking to maintain a body in a yin-yang balanced state.

So, the saying toutong yitou, jiaotong yijiao, or “treating only the head for headache and only the feet for a foot sore,” is a criticism of a stopgap treatment of the symptoms but not the disease.

Today, this saying can be used to describe any approach that fails to identify the root cause of a problem and is thus fundamentally unable to solve it.

If Chinese people say a doctor is “treating only the head for headache,” they mean that he is not a good doctor.

Which brings us to another old saying: jiubing cheng liangyi, which literally means “a chronic illness makes a patient a good doctor.” It’s akin to the Irish proverb “Every invalid is a physician.”

These two doctor-patient sayings are still widely quoted in Chinese conversation and writing today.


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