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Samantha Andreacchi/MEDILL

Dr. Charles Lo performs cupping on a patient. The fire is used to create a vacuum in the glass cup; the cups themselves are cold. 

East meets West in Chicago medical practice

by Samantha Andreacchi
Jan 31, 2013


Samantha Andreacchi/MEDILL

Dr. Charles Lo followed in his parents' footsteps when he left the Western medicine world to study traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

medicinal herbs

Samantha Andreacchi/MEDILL

Dr. Charles Lo mixes an herbal remedy for a patient. His herb closet is stocked with both traditional Chinese herbal formulas and Western herbs like St. John's wort. 

Popular traditional Chinese medicine treatments

  • Acupuncture: A technique that involves piercing the skin with thin, metal needles to correct imbalances in the flow of qi, or life energy, along energy channels called meridians.
  • Cupping: A technique that involves applying a heated cup to the skin. The light suction fights stagnation and increases blood and qi flow. 
  • Guasha: A technique that involves rubbing a smooth-edged object over the skin to encourage blood and qi flow. 
  • Herbal Remedies: Herb mixtures can be taken in many forms, including capsules, teas and powders. Herbs are primarily plants, but can include minerals or animal products. 

Source: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Dr. Charles Lo 

Shortly after graduating from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in 1977, Dr. Charles Lo decided to take a left turn—he would devote himself to traditional Chinese medicine and join his parents at their Chicago acupuncture clinic.

Today, Lo runs clinics in Oak Park and downtown Chicago, where he offers traditional Chinese medicine treatments like acupuncture, guasha, cupping and herbal remedies. (See sidebar.)

In traditional Chinese medicine, the body is considered a single, unbroken organism; the body, the mind and the spirit are all connected. Qi, a life energy, runs through the body along pathways called meridians, and if an imbalance occurs and a meridian is blocked, we experience illness.

But how does he reconcile his Western training with his unwavering belief in the power and effectiveness of Eastern medical practices? It isn’t that complicated. Lo said his background in Western medicine actually makes him a better doctor of complementary and alternative therapies.

Q: Why did you decide to make the transition from Western to Eastern medicine?

A: My parents, James and Mary Lo, were Western medical doctors. My father had an injury and developed chronic pain, and when Western medicine didn’t work, he tried acupuncture and it worked. After that, my parents started studying acupuncture, and they were actually some of the first Western physicians in Chicago to start studying and practicing acupuncture in the 1970s.

During that time, I was in medical school doing my residency. Then I got whiplash, and when my parents treated me with acupuncture, it relieved my pain, too. After that I decided I wanted to study more acupuncture and found that I just couldn’t prescribe medications and practice the way that most Western doctors practice.

So, I decided to switch over and devote myself to traditional Chinese medicine practices. I went to China, studied acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine there, and joined my parents at their practice in Chicago. I think it was a natural thing for me to get into it.

Q: How is Eastern treatment for illness different from Western treatment?

A: In Eastern medicine, we don’t separate the mind, the body and the spirit. We just don’t look at the body the same way Western medicine does.

In terms of treatment, we do a more holistic evaluation of a patient. We evaluate the person’s physiology, see what organs are out of balance, then we try to treat that imbalance with things like acupuncture or guasha and cupping. We will also suggest exercises like tai chi or yoga, dietary changes and herbal remedies.

Q: Do you think your background in Western medicine helps you provide better traditional Chinese medical therapies for your patients? Will you ever refer someone to a Western doctor?

A: Yes, it definitely helps me. I understand what patients are going through in terms of their diagnosis or lack of diagnosis, and I can also understand their testing, the drugs their taking and their side effects. So I look at their problems from two perspectives.

Some people do need Western medicine. I’m not denying the power of Western medicine. But I think there’s a lot of abuse of medications, especially in seniors. I think that there are other ways of treating patients’ pain. We should use the most benign types of treatments with the least side effects.

And yes, I’ll refer someone to a Western doctor, especially if they need something like a CT scan or MRI, or if they need a nerve test and chemical test to make sure they don’t have a chronic illness like diabetes.

I think that if you’re living in the Western world, you need to have both Eastern and Western medical treatments. People need to have a choice of what they want to do as far as their health care.

Q: Are there any illnesses you won’t treat? Will you treat someone with cancer?

A: If a person has a severe anatomic anomaly or disorder that needs some kind of surgical or corrective procedure, we typically won’t treat them. We would refer them to a specialist.

And some problems are much more difficult to treat than others. Tinnitus, or ringing of the ears, is a condition we have problems treating, especially chronic tinnitus.

In the case of cancer, we don’t say we’re treating the cancer, but we do try to help the person’s quality of life when they go through a Western cancer treatment. In China they have a more holistic view of cancer; they try to treat patients with both Western and Eastern methods, and I think that’s what people are starting to do here, too. If you talk to cancer patients, many of them are getting other therapies like massage, herbal medicine, supplementations, or acupuncture to complement their current care.

Q: Do you think Eastern medicine is becoming more accepted in the Western medicine world?

A: I think it’s becoming more accepted in certain groups. For example, the military is starting to use acupuncture for post-traumatic brain damage and for people with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I don’t think Western medicine currently offers good treatments or therapies for those two problems. But now that the National Institutes of Health is studying these issues more closely, I’m confident that there’s hope for patients with those problems.