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Keep the Change

By Scott Hamilton
January 13, 2020

It’s shameful getting sent to the principal’s office, so I recall the time it happened to me. My fourth-grade teacher was worried that I was ill, and then grew more concerned when she noticed red marks and bruises on my neck, back and shoulders. When she asked me about them, I said that’s how my mom treats me when I’m sick. Even more freaked out, she sent me to the principal’s. My response raised fears of abuse, but to
me, a Vietnamese, the practice of “coining” is normal. Known as cao gio (pronounced gow yaw), coining is a common traditional technique in Southeast Asia. It’s used to treat flu, colds, muscle pain and fatigue.

The literal translation is “catching the wind.” It’s believed that we get sick because of being too much in windy weather, causing an imbalance in the immune system. To restore balance, “bad wind” is released from the body by coining. Objects with smooth edges like coins or spoons are dipped in heated oil and rubbed in a specific pattern on the back, chest, shoulders and neck. This leaves red lines that last for three to five days.

When children show up at the Emergency Department, doctor’s offices or schools with these marks, things can become hectic. Doctors, teachers and other parents who aren’t familiar with coining worry about abuse, and think about reporting it to the authorities. All the more reason for doctors to listen to patients and their parents without prejudice. Physicians must be willing to be open-minded about different practices. For parents, it can be uncomfortable to discuss alternative medicine with doctors, fearing judgment. It’s important to discuss alternative practices with doctors, because some can help, but some can be harmful. Doctors are becoming more aware of these practices, and science is helping to figure out which are actually good and which might be dangerous. The National Institutes of Health now has a Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (NIH-NCCIH) to study these issues. Stay tuned!

In these high-tech days with telemedicine, you can meet your doctor or specialist over the computer. They can see you, discuss your problems, look at labs and x-rays together, and have a nurse practitioner do a proxy physical exam. I know a woman with a low-tech equivalent: she calls up her traiteur and gets her healing over the phone! Alternative medicine is ancient. Wherever there are people with limited access to health care, a lack of understanding of disease or few resources, they turn to what’s at hand. In medieval Europe, they used what herbs grew in the forest or garden. In Asia, they used coining and other methods like acupuncture, massages and their own herbs. Many of these therapies survive today.

Olympic athletes use high-tech training tools like high-speed filming of their techniques and oxygen/substrate burn measures, but then show up with odd red circles all over them. In the 2016 Olympics, many of them utilized cupping, a centuries old technique believed to help muscles better recover from fatigue. It’s done by heating a cup and applying it to the skin— when the air cools inside the cup, it sucks onto the skin and leaves distinct, round bruises. Science is just starting to evaluate these practices to see which really help and which might be harmful. For example, St. John’s Wort is a plant that’s been used for centuries for depression and as a dietary supplement. However, it can interfere with some lifesustaining medications, like prescribed antidepressants, heart medications, chemotherapy and others. This is especially important when considering supplements for kids, as their ability to handle herbal remedies can be different from adults.

When you take your child to the doctor, be sure to mention all alternative practices you use. Some are helpful, some aren’t, and it’s important to know so we can make sure standard medicine doesn’t harm or interfere.
And so, when we see odd circles or coining streaks, we don’t panic either!

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