Today I’m posting the first of what I hope are a series of interviews with people who are doing alternative treatments for lymphedema.  First up is David Lee, Ph.D., who I’ve been working with.

I hope you find this helpful.  If you know a Chinese medicine doctor who is familiar with lymphedema, or other practioner helping you to get significant results, please let me know as we’d love to have other voices too, so we can all learn from their experiences.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, Dr. Lee.  My first question is how many lymphedema patients have you treated?

I have treated 10  patients with lymphedema over the past few years.  In addition, I have treated about 25 people with general edema disorders over the past decade, too.

Have you worked with both those who have it from an unknown cause (primary) as well as those who got it from a surgery (secondary)?

Yes, I have worked with both types.  I have treated more patients from unknown causes, however.  I have worked with only three individuals who got the lymphedema as a result of surgery.  One of my patients who got it as a result of surgery did a video about her experience that is on my website if you’re interested.

In Asian medicine, both primary and secondary causes of lymphedema are treated in a similar manner because there is no differential diagnosis for both. Because a specific area (location of lymphedema) and the whole body (organs and physiology) are addressed at the same time, the Asian herbal therapy for both is the same. Yes, there is a difference between a direct trauma, such as surgery, and an unknown physiological compromise. But what ties them together is the idea that the body needs to self-recover. Because the Asian herbs have multiple benefits, it assists the body in multiple ways to self-heal.

What type of results do you normally see?  I know with my lymphedema, with Chinese herbs I’ve gotten it to reduce about 80% total so far with the help of you and another Chinese medicine doctor (previously).    I think people reading this want to know what they can expect.  Or do results vary widely? 

Unfortunately in my experience, the results do vary widely. Of the three people with lymphedema directly caused by surgery, only one had a lasting relief.

My patients with primary lymphedema had varying results. My estimate is that a third had high relief, a third had moderate relief, and then a third had little perceivable improvement.

However, it is possible that some of those with lesser or no results would have gotten relief had they stayed with the program longer.

I can relate to that.  When I was first treated with these herbs, I had to wait four months to get ANY response, so that was tough.  Then I took the herbs the first time for over a year. 

Yes, it can be difficult to know.  I always want to be conservative in my treatment too, so I don’t push someone who is not ready to continue.

Western medicine says that after lymphedema passes stage one it is irreversible.  But you use Chinese, or Asian medicine as you refer to it, to help reverse it.  How does that work?

If Western medicine’s treatment model does not work, then we are told lymphedema is irreversible. There is no viable medication or treatment to make the lymphedema to go away unless it “spontaneously” happens. Spontaneous means there is no explanation. Western medicine cannot yet understand the mechanism of acupuncture and herbs because the mechanism is too complex for a clear scientific study. But clinical observation verifies the solution for many stubborn diseases does exist through natural medicine.

How these Asian herbs work is unknown to everyone, including acupuncturists. However, we have words to describe the phenomenon using words related to meridians, organs, flavor, and temperature. To me, it’s akin to asking, “how does love work?” Nobody knows how love works. It has so many variables that no one can tackle this complexity. Then it is more relevant to ask, “is it safe and effective?” The answer is a definite yes. I can say that Asian herbs help to heal the lymphatic vessels. In addition, since herbs have multiple benefits, they at the same time improve the health of the organs, glands and nervous system. When multiple areas within the body improve, then the effect for the lymphatic vessels become even stronger.

In your experience, how long does it take to see results?   As I previously said, mine took 4 long months before I noticed any difference in swelling.   

In my experience, the noticeable reduction of lymphedema is as quick as 14 days or up to 60 days, depending on the severity of the condition. In addition, which specific herbal ingredients work the best vary from person to person. Because there are no one-size-fits-all herbs for edema, a constitutional diagnosis to determine which herbal ingredients to use is necessary. It is because each constitution has a unique physiology that needs to be worked with.

Are Chinese herbs safe?

Asian herbs, or Chinese herbs that some call them, are very safe. Because these occur in natural form and have been safely used for thousands of years, plenty of time was given to record and verify their properties. As an acupuncturist, I have been prescribing herbs for 20 years, even for some systemic diseases which require at least 6 months of consumption without causing problems as indicated in the blood tests.

That’s good to hear.  I took them for a long time then wondered if it had damaged my liver.  Fortunately, I was able to track down a Fibroscan test and got a normal result, which was a huge relief. 

Do patients usually experience any side effects?

Yes, some patients do experience some side effects. My estimate is that 35% do and 65% do not. But Asian herbs are safe. The negative side-effects are reversed within a few days and there is no long-term negative consequence. There is no lasting subjective discomfort nor triggering of an irreversible chain of events. But I do not recommend anyone taking Asian herbs for longer than 60 days because it can injure the body if taken beyond this period of time.

I know that now.  But at the beginning of my practice 20 years ago, I took all the herbs to take advantage of their benefits, thinking more is better. Rather than improving my health, I was very sick within 3 years as if they triggered my body to break down. At only age 31, I was plagued with the symptoms of fatigue, lack of focus, muscle tightness, and many more really negative symptoms.  These symptoms were steadily worsening. The reason for my health problem was taking wrong herbs for too long.  I learned a lot by experiencing that and corrected it to restore my health.  Now, I am vigilant about correct herbal ingredients and how long they are taken to be within the safe range.

Due to the inherent safety of herbs, especially the formulas acupuncturists in the United States use, I welcome mild negative side effects as a way to identify the correct herbs. Although I took the Hippocratic oath of “first do no harm”, it is an opportunity to change the herbal ingredients to make the formula a better fit for the individual.

Asian herbs, however, are time-tested….it’s not anything new. Through thousands of years of usage with meticulous clinical and theoretical recording in each generation, our knowledge of how to make it as comprehensively beneficial as possible is at a respectable level. For this reason, Asian herbs have been the solution to reverse many stubborn diseases by empowering the body to self-heal rather than as direct intervention. I estimate that over 65% of patients who use Asian medicine have a good result.  While there is not a 100% guarantee it will work for everyone, there are health benefits to be gained, and little downside to trying it.

Does acupuncture work for lymphedema?

No. In my experience, acupuncture is not enough for improving the health and quality of the lymphatic vessels. Asian herbs are the choice for this condition. Although I have seen leg edema due to acute liver failure quickly improve with acupuncture, the lymphatic vessels are in general better treated with herbs.

What else do you recommend along with Chinese herbs to help speed up improvements?  i.e. Tui Na massage, diet changes, anything else?

I am a firm believer in any therapy that empowers the body to self-heal and is not a safety hazard to the public. Some examples of those therapies are Tai Chi Quan, Tui Na, yoga, massage, Qi Gong, and cupping.

Because many patients at my clinic have already gone through many routes and tried obvious remedies, I do not have a special recommendation other than diet.  In my experience, if you can determine your body type or constitution, you can eat accordingly for better overall health benefits.  Whether or not it impacts lymphedema is hard to say, but if it helps you feel better and stay healthier, then I would encourage it.

Does it matter when you take these herbs and should you take them with food or away from meals?

It does not matter if the herbs are taken with or between meals. I do not even mind if they are taken with medication. Although there is a discussion about drug-herb interaction, I have not seen blood test reading that had worsened from the herbs. So, concern about the synergistic effect or conflict seems to be not reflective of the actual safety of these herbs. It’s mostly a concern because of such harmful side-effects from prescription one-molecule medications. However, the herbs should not be interpreted from the same western view. Still, if someone is on medication and has other health issues, I always encourage them to work with their primary physician to monitor for any changes in blood tests or other readings.

If someone has lymphedema but doesn’t have someone with your experience nearby, what would you advise they look for in a Chinese medicine provider? 

My criteria with Asian medicine practitioners is a high level of empathy and their practice of wide-variety of issues as a general practitioner. Empathy is important because Asian medicine is by nature an introspective practice, requiring the acupuncturists to use their subjective senses and emotion. Listening is really important, as your experience on the herbs will provide invaluable feedback.

In addition, because Asian medicine is by nature holistic, acupuncturists tend not to specialize. The acupuncturist’s willingness to consider many symptoms and signs is an indicator of being open to not only new possibilities but also to accept a human body in its complexity. Even when I first started my practice 20 years ago, my efficiency was high for a variety of stubborn problems because I understood that Asian medicine does not rest on technicality only. Although the length of experience and extensive studies contribute to a greater credibility of the practitioner, to me, these are not the essential criteria.

Because many Asian herbalists are not proficient in English, patients are often left with wondering if they have properly communicated or the practitioners sufficiently understood the disease. My simple reply to this concern is that the western diagnosis does not dictate how the Asian medicine is practiced. For example, variations of lymphedema from primary causes or from secondary causes such as surgery, radiation, trauma, infection, and venous insufficiency do not determine the type of ingredients used. Otherwise, the western practitioners would already be using them. Asian medicine has a different theoretical model that has been refined over thousands of years. This model is not transposable to the language of western medicine. Of course, some lymphedema is difficult or not treatable using Asian medicine. Such are congenital, tumor, and filariasis. So an Asian medicine practitioner does not have to know the intricate biomolecular detail of the problem nor have to be proficient in English.

However, for your comfort, you want to make sure you can easily communicate with the practitioner.

You can also potentially work with a qualified provider remotely.  Through a video conference, for example, I can establish a constitutional diagnosis so that I can mail out the Asian herbs.

Natural medicine, in general, is safe and does not cause long-term problems. So I recommend you try different practitioners until you find relief. Some specialize. Others do not. My observation is that a general practitioner can actually be a good solution, as many generalists are forced to be creative thinkers and effective problem solvers.  As long as you have good communication with them, it may be worth a try.  Just be sure to give them feedback, because hearing your experience is part of the process to help achieve a successful outcome.

Great…thank you, Dr. Lee.  I found this very helpful.   Hopefully it helps demystify the whole process for some of our readers who may be considering this treatment. 


More about Dr. Lee:

David Lee, Ph.D. holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Oriental Medicine. He took pre-medicine courses and holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of California at Irvine. His externship was at Arthur Ashe UCLA Student Health Center and Daniel Freeman Hospital in Marina del Rey, California. He practices full-time since 2000 in Thousand Oaks, California.

David Lee discovered revolutionary treatment protocols in acupuncture, acupressure, Chinese herbs, and diet. In addition, being interested in both external and internal diseases, he treats many stubborn and chronic conditions such as autism, chemical dependency, and hot flashes. Asian medicine’s ability to treat difficult cases and to make a person healthier still surprises him daily. Speaking internationally, David actively shares his clinical knowledge. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three children.