Hyperthyroidism affects more than two million Americans, according to the UCSF (University of California, San Francisco) Medical Center. This thyroid disorder, if left untreated, may gradually thin the bones, damage the cardiovascular system, suppress reproductive functions and cause eye problems. It may even lead to a fatal thyroid storm in some patients. However, it is considered manageable but incurable in Western medicine.
Two anti-thyroid drugs are commonly used: methimazole and propylthiouracil (more widely known as PTU). Both take weeks to alleviate symptoms and months to normalize thyroid hormones. Both have side effects including rash, joint aches, liver problems and low white blood cell count. Worst of all, once the patient stops the medication, hyperthyroidism often comes back! When it does, the endocrinologist may suggest radioactive iodine, which will destroy most or all of the tissue in the patient’s thyroid gland, and then the patient will probably need to take a thyroid hormone for life.
The aggressive ablation might be justifiable if the patient had thyroid cancer, which is not the case with most hyperthyroid patients though. Why nuke good tissue of a gland which could be just misbehaving temporarily?
While some endocrinologists call radioactive iodine a “cure” for hyperthyroidism, it is not. A cure is supposed to restore health and turn the once-malfunctioning organ(s) back to normal, but in most cases, the thyroid gland won’t function normally after receiving radioactive iodine. Making someone hypothyroid is definitely not curing hyperthyroidism.
Furthermore, radioactive iodine can produce even worse side effects than anti-thyroid drugs. Elaine Moore, a medical writer who had radioiodine ablation, often mentions the long-term side effects she has been suffering, including severe hypothyroidism, pretibial myxedema (localized lesions of the skin) and a nodule in her remaining thyroid tissue.
Given the choice between inadequate anti-thyroid drugs and harsh radioiodine ablation, what’s a hyperthyroid patient to do?
Fortunately, there is another option—acupuncture.
Chinese medicine practitioners have been using acupuncture to treat hyperthyroidism for thousands of years. In Chinese medical classics, hyperthyroidism is called ying-qi (瘿氣), which can be roughly translated as “a goiter formed by excessive energy” because the Chinese word qi here refers to the energy circulating through the body to keep every cell functioning.
In Chinese medicine, it is believed that qi is metabolized in the liver, which is coincidentally also an organ responsible for metabolism in Western medicine. So, the way Chinese medicine practitioners interpret the mechanism of hyperthyroidism, though seemingly abstract, should be easy for Westerners to comprehend.
From the Chinese medicine practitioner’s point of view, emotional stress and/or improper diet can make qi stuck in the liver instead of being smoothly metabolized. The stagnated qi heats up the liver, causing a liver fire which generates excessive heat for the entire body. Imagine how smoke from the liver fire dries bodily fluids and forces mucus to go up. When the drying and rising mucus reaches the thyroid gland, it accumulates there as phlegm. Then phlegm coagulation forms the goiter seen in the hyperthyroid patient.
This mechanism explains why hyperthyroid symptoms include intolerance for high temperatures, heart palpitation, higher blood pressure, eyelid inflammation, and erectile dysfunction in men or scanty menstrual periods which often lead to amenorrhea in women. The symptoms all manifest dry heat which causes thicker blood (making the blood pressure higher) as well as a lack of bodily fluids (not enough for the tear glands, nor for the reproductive system).
Based on this mechanism, the root cause of hyperthyroidism is qi stagnation, so the solution must get qi moving again. That’s what acupuncture does.
Acupuncture works by inserting extremely thin needles to stimulate certain anatomical locations (called “acupoints”) which are connected with problem areas through meridians, namely the paths qi takes to travel through the body. Such stimulation can move the stagnated qi in the liver. Repetition is necessary to clear the liver qi stagnation and quench the liver fire, so the patient needs to receive acupuncture about twice a week for several weeks. During these weeks, as qi flows more and more smoothly, it will gradually thin the phlegm in the thyroid gland. The goiter will subsequently melt away.
In the meantime, flowing qi will push blood to bring nutrition and moisture to all the organs in need. Once the qi stagnation and liver fire are gone, the blood naturally returns to normal.
Blood pressure and heart rate can be easily measured by a device from any drugstore before the patient’s next hospital visit and blood test. If the blood pressure and heart rate come back down to the pre-hyperthyroidism numbers, that means the patient is nearing recovery, or at least remission.
The word “recovery” is hardly used for hyperthyroid patients because the vast majority of hyperthyroid cases are caused by an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease (discovered by Irish doctor Robert Graves in 1835). Autoimmune diseases are generally considered incurable in Western medicine because they often return after being suppressed by medication.
In Chinese medicine, however, hyperthyroidism is deemed curable because there is no suppression involved with the treatment. Acupuncture doesn’t do anything directly to the thyroid gland. Instead, it creates favorable conditions for the thyroid gland to calm down naturally. In the cases of autoimmune hyperthyroid patients, a highly proficient acupuncturist can make flowing qi soothe the immune system, which in turn stops pushing the thyroid gland to produce more hormones. As acupuncture gets to the roots of the problem, it can be regarded as a cure for Graves’ disease as well as other types of hyperthyroidism.
While in theory acupuncture can cure hyperthyroidism, not every certified acupuncturist is capable of making it happen. It is a given that some outperform others in every profession. Acupuncturists are no exception in this regard. It is important to find an acupuncturist who truly knows which acupoints work best in treating hyperthyroidism. Word of mouth should definitely be taken into consideration.
Will hyperthyroidism ever come back after a successful acupuncture treatment? This depends on whether there are environmental and/or emotional factors that will cause qi stagnation and trigger liver fire again. What’s certain though is acupuncture will still be able to solve the problem if it occurs again, unlike Western medicine, which tends to become less effective after repeated use, as drug resistance develops. This is one more reason for calling acupuncture a superior treatment for hyperthyroidism.
Acupuncture in the United States is widely recognized as a great way to treat pains, but its wonderful effect on hyperthyroidism has not been much publicized. What a misfortune for those who only get to choose between anti-thyroid drugs and radioiodine ablation! The two million hyperthyroid Americans deserve to know what acupuncture can do for them.
The information provided in this article is designed to help readers better understand the nature of hyperthyroidism and the solutions available. None of the information should be construed as or is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment.