Modern versus traditional medicine

Last Tuesday (just shy of a week ago) I had surgery on my knee to address a torn meniscus, an injury I got because I went on a run after having spent the previous 15 years getting older.  I write about it here because I mentioned that I was having surgery to a guy who works at my gym. This guy is a proponent of traditional Chinese medicine and told me that I was doing myself a disservice by using conventional medicine because traditional Chinese medicine is superior. This, he said, was because traditional medicine has been around for thousands of years, whereas modern medicine has only been around for a few hundred.

Meniscus 1

My poor presurgical knee with its torn meniscus.

The procedure I had is properly referred to as a partial meniscectomy with a joint debridement. Basically that means that they used a scope to go in to my knee capsule and remove the flap of torn meniscus tissue then clean the area up. 

As serious as it sounds, the whole procedure only lasted about 30 minutes. I arrived at the hospital at 7:30 am and was back at home walking around by 11:30.

My post-surgical knee looking almost as good as new.

My post-surgical knee looking almost as good as new.

Prior to surgery it felt as though there was a homunculus with a jackhammer dwelling inside my knee and doing his best to destroy it. Now, a week after surgery, the only pain I feel is from the swelling caused by the procedure itself and that has diminished consistently each day.

The little jackhammering fellow that I imagined causing all the pain.

The little jackhammering fellow that I imagined causing all the pain.

It would be very easy to take this procedure for granted as a minor one but if you stop and think about it, they went into my knee, an area that is usually closed to the outside world, removed bad tissue, and then cleaned the area up all while I felt no pain.  This did not ever happen during the heyday of ancient “traditional” medicine, it happened because in the 19th century practitioners began to use a more systematic and scientific analysis of patient symptoms in the diagnosis of disease and pathology.

It’s true that ancient chinese medicine has been around for at least 2500 years. Chinese medicine encompasses things like Massage and acupuncture, which have been shown to be quite effective in pain management, and other procedures that do nothing beyond the placebo effect. The evidence that massage is effective for pain management is robust enough to suggest that it is a worthwhile adjunct to scientific medicine. This is not controversial though, because massage is often a regular part of the post-operative physical therapy regimen. It was prescribed to me as part of mine.  What’s important to remember is that despite its efficacy for pain management, massage is not doing anything to treat disease or pathology; it helps control the pain. It is the all-natural version of ibuprofen. Certainly worthy of taking seriously but not the end-all-be-all of medicine.

Had I opted to forego surgery and use “traditional” medicine I would still have excruciating pain in my knee and would need to manage it using massage or acupuncture. The pain relief would only last until the effects wore off then I would need to go back and do it again. A 45-minute massage at my local wellness center is $49 and that is not covered by my insurance if I just go on my own without real medical advice. You can see that this would be great for the person charging me for the massage but not really for me. I’d have to keep going back to get the benefit. The surgery I had means that they fixed the problem. I don’t need to go have surgery every week to keep the pain down.

I guess I see the appeal of the ancient therapy argument however I can’t escape the observation that up until very recent times people died of things like influenza by the hundreds of thousands and, with regard to surgery, even very minor surgical procedures would have been torturous.  Ancient therapies aren’t better simply because they are older, they have to work if we want to call them better. I don’t have anything against traditional practices or Chinese medicine if they work but, for my money, I am going to bet on the side that uses science.