THE CHINESE MEDICINE MINEFIELD; Chinese Medicine Clinics Are Popping Up in Every Town. Many Are Reputable, Giving Othersare M Questionabl Bizarre Diag Potentially Serious Illnesses and Charging a Small Fortune for Dubious Cocktails of Herbs

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THE doctor checks my pulse with his fingertips and asks me to stick out my tongue. He speaks rapidly to his assistant - a young Chinese man dressed in a suit - who acts as a translator.

It is Dr Liao's opinion that the severe headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting I've been suffering from for the last three weeks are the result of not having 'enough blood' in my head. 'The blood is going up to here,' the translator says, indicating at the top of his throat, 'and not all of it going all the way up'.

Sitting on a stool in a cramped consulting room on Grafton Street, I take a few seconds to think about this diagnosis.

'So is it a circulation problem?' I ask. I'm told it could be a problem with my neck and this is stopping the blood reaching my head. What kind of neck problem isn't explained, but I'm assured that I can be cured with a combination of acupuncture, acupressure and cupping.

'And some herbs, all natural' the young translator adds, almost as an afterthought. ' Definitely no side effects,' he says. What's more, the treatment will banish this problem for 'maybe twenty years'.

Which is just as well because the costs of curing my 'blood in the head' problem are mounting up.

A session of acupuncture costs e40, acupressure is e30 and cupping is e20.

The specially prepared herbs cost e8 per bag - for the recommended five days that's e40.

So to start with my treatment I will have to fork out e130 for one session consisting of the three therapies and five days of herbs. And I'm told I will probably need more than one session.

I leave the clinic telling them I'll call to make an appointment later. But in reality I don't have a headache and I'm in no need of treatment, medical or otherwise.

Instead, I'm investigating the growing number of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinics, like this one, that have been springing up in cities and towns all around Ireland.

One of the oldest system of medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine has existed for up to 5,000 years.

China currently devotes around 25 per cent of its annual health budget to supporting TCM therapies, used in conjunction with Western medicine, to treat a range of conditions from asthma to fertility problems.

It is based on the Chinese belief in the existence of Qi, pronounced 'chee'.

Qi is the body's own life energy and illness is caused when this energy is out of balance.

BUT scientific studies have also shown acupuncture to be an effective treatment of chronic pain and pain clinics at some of the country's main hospitals include acupunture as part of their treatment programmes.

The belief is that it works by causing the release of 'feel-good' endorphins in the body and also by providing a stimulus that interrupts the pain messages to the brain.

Last month the internationally respected Cochrane Collaboration, a charity that specialises in reviewing scientific data, announced that Chinese herbal medicine may safely reduce the adverse side effects of chemotherapy drugs and antipsychotic medication.

And in November, the drugs giant Merck said it was seeking help from Chinese medicine to find a cure for cancer.

In Ireland, its popularity is growing, with private insurers now covering TCM and 500 practitioners registered around the country.

But alongside its growth in popularity, concerns are being raised that there is not enough regulation to safeguard patients.

While independent regulatory bodies such as the Acupuncture Council of Ireland, the Irish Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine and the Association of Chinese Herbalists in Ireland provide a strict code of practice for their members, they are only voluntary organisations.

The reality is that anyone can call themselves a practitioner of Chinese Medicine. As a result, industry insiders worry that the industry has become littered with poorly-trained or unscrupulous doctors, cashing in on the popularity of TCM and offering unnecessary treatments. …