A Conversation With Dr. Charles Lo, a Chinese-born, U.S.-trained MD Who Has Turned to the Way of His Ancestors
By Bryan Miller
“People think of energy as something we get out of the Middle East, or out of the wall plug,” says acupuncturist Charles Lo, MD. “But everything living has energy–what the Chinese call qi [pronounced chee]. Everything with a physical form has qi. ‘Energy’ is really a poor translation, because qi has to do with a number of phenomena. It’s the term for air in Chinese, and it’s actually a kind of universal, ethereal concept.
“To the Chinese, spirit is the vitality behind a person’s mind. It’s the twinkle in a person’s eye. It’s the capacity of the mind to create ideas, and to have the capacity to live.”
Six years ago, Charles Lo joined the family firm. His parents, Dr. James Lo and Dr. Mary Lo, both pathologists, got their medical training in China and came to this country in 1948. Both had very Western views of the practice of medicine–until James’s chronic back and shoulder pain, which had withstood all that Western medicine could do for it, responded almost immediately to acupuncture. That’s when the Los returned to their Chinese roots and began the study of acupuncture, practicing at first, in the early 70s, only on their family and friends. In the early 80s they gave up their day jobs to become full-time acupuncturists.
Charles Lo trained as an internist, completing his internship and residency at Cook County Hospital in 1980. He started studying acupuncture in 1983, and joined his parents in their practice in December of 1984. He went to China in 1985, and again in 1987, “for a more disciplined training,” at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing–“the mecca of acupuncture.” He treats patients in Oak Park and the Loop, bringing relief with hair-thin silvery needles inserted in just the proper spots, heating them slightly with electrical current.
Lo says his parents gave him a brave example. “I have to give them all the credit for the courage that they had. They were doing acupuncture in ’71 or ’72, when it was really unknown, and you were really a heretic for practicing it. My parents are very pragmatic people. It didn’t matter to them that there wasn’t a good explanation why acupuncture worked; all that mattered to them was that it worked for them, and that they could help patients with acupuncture. Everything else was irrelevant.”
No one knows precisely how acupuncture works, but putting needles into the places long ago established by Chinese medicine seems to stimulate a response from various organs; it’s used for everything from arthritis to asthma, from headaches to labor pains. Charles Lo says there is some evidence of how acupuncture pain relief works: “When the needles go into the muscle, it stimulates certain nerve fibers, which send a signal to the spinal cord. In turn, the spinal cord releases endorphin chemicals to send a signal off to the thalamus and a couple of other areas in the brain. So there’s a definite mechanistic Western explanation of why acupuncture works for pain. In my mind, acupuncture is better understood than a lot of Western medical treatments.”
Bryan Miller: What was your first experience with acupuncture?
Charles Lo: Actually, my first experience with acupuncture, besides the fact that my parents practiced, was in 1977, when my parents and I made a trip to China. It was the first time they had been back to China in 30 years. Part of the purpose of the trip was for my parents to see old friends and teachers, their classmates and their mother country. And we wanted to investigate acupuncture. So we went to several different hospitals and clinics; we were shown all different kinds of treatments. We saw operations done under acupuncture anesthesia; we saw children treated with acupuncture, and adults–all sorts of different disorders.
Acupuncture is difficult to learn, not only because of the foreign concepts, the terminology and the language, but also because of the fact that you have to be taught teacher-to-apprentice, in a physical manner; you have to see the person doing it. You have to experience it yourself. You have to get the points, you have to learn the meridians, you have to get the acupuncture needles, you have to understand how it feels. You have to experience it. And one of the first things my professor did when I was in Beijing was to needle me, to let me know what it really felt like, to feel the energy and force of the treatment.
In ’85 I had an interesting experience. I went over to China, and I had a bronchitis, almost a pneumonia. I was taking antibiotics, and I couldn’t get over it. I went over there, training, and they noticed that I was sick. The professor treated me–and within two days I was cured, with just needles. That really impressed me.
BM: Perhaps we should clarify a couple of items before we go on. I understand that points are the spots at which the needles are inserted, but what exactly are the meridians?
CL: A meridian is an energy pathway; it flows from the external surface of the body to internal connections on the organs. A good analogy would be a waterway: it’s not a two-dimensional diagram but a three-dimensional organic-tissue pathway. It’s interesting that meridians follow the major nerves and arteries in the body–and we know that they’re more electrically conductive. The needles are used to regulate the flow of qi when it’s blocked.