The 48 Hours guide to TCM
Our quick guide to traditional Chinese medicine looks at key treatments, where to get them and first-hand accounts of what to expect
What is it?
Reflexology involves massaging pressure points on the soles of the feet, as well as the lower leg. For most people the treatment is painful - depending on your pain threshold - but the result is a good night's sleep, after most of the circulation pathways have been unblocked.
The soles of the feet correspond to different organs and body parts. For example, areas matching the intestines and stomach are in the arches of the feet, while those for the neck and throat are at the bottom of the big toes.
What to expect
First, your feet are soaked in either relatively hot water or some kind of medicinal concoction to get the blood circulation going and warm your feet. After they are wiped clean, the masseuse begins with your left foot, pressing on specific points with an oily cream. Be warned: the right foot may hurt more than the left.
For first timers, the pain might take some getting used to. In my case, pressure on my heel has me yelping, and the masseuse explains that it is because I wasn't getting enough sleep.
Treatment on the insides of my feet, corresponding to the stomach, wasn't particularly relaxing, either.
Towards the end of the treatment, the calf muscles and the top of the feet are massaged. It is best to drink plenty of water (preferably warm or hot) during or after the treatment to help flush out the system. Reflexology can be a tiring experience, and it's best to have the treatment just before going to bed to ensure a good night's sleep.
One session a week should be enough to improve circulation in the body, and children as young as five years old can undergo this treatment. If you exercise regularly, reflexology should be less painful. Bad diet and poor posture are revealed by the pressure-point massage.
Be sure to wear a skirt or trousers that can be rolled up past the knees. In some places like Gao's, they will provide disposable shorts if you need to change into loose clothing.
Gao's Foot Massage, 15/F Century Square, 1-13 D'Aguilar Street, Central, tel: 2810 9219, gaosfootlankwaifong.com (30 mins, HK$120; 55 mins, HK$198; 65 mins, HK$258)
What is it?
Based on similar principles to those of acupuncture, tui na (which translates as "push and pull") involves a combination of therapeutic massage and acupressure, to clear the flow of qi through the meridians. It is said to offer similar benefits to osteopathy, relieve some chronic pains, stress-related disorders and insomnia, and help realign the spine. Depending on your needs, it can be combined with other treatments, such as herbal compresses.
What to expect
You'll need to give your medical history, detailing your lifestyle habits, any physical traumas or surgery. Make sure you wear loose, comfortable clothes, and remove your shoes and jewellery as you'll probably be fully clothed during the treatment.
My female therapist covers me with a towel and firmly presses on my legs and shoulders to warm them up. She spends a long time on my neck and shoulders, applying persistent, deep pressure using her thumbs and fingers. She immediately finds her way to the usual tense parts plus a few others I didn't even know I had.
She moves down my back, using her forearms and body weight. It's difficult to resist squirming when she digs her fingers into sensitive areas along the top sides of my rib cage. Whole hands are used to gently knead my upper arms, and she clicks and pulls my fingers. There's some buttock kneading that's a little painful (perhaps my behind is tighter than I dared hope?), but it's bearable.
Finally, I'm instructed to flip over so she can work on my chest, neck, behind my ears and my lower hairline, until suddenly an alarm clock shrills and I'm briskly sent on my way.
If you're not into deep tissue massage then you'll want to give this one a miss. I am, however, and while it's painful at times, it's the blissful kind of pain you get from kneading tight muscles, not the unpleasant kind I've experienced at less legit local massage joints.
Did I feel tender afterwards? Yes, and thirsty and tired - I recommend you schedule your session for the end of the day. Would I return? Absolutely: it's a no-frills but effective treatment, and at this price, well worth the trip.
Eu Yan Sang Integrative Medical Centre, 6/F Radio City, 505 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2574 9132. (45 mins, HK$300; first-time fee, HK$270)
What is it?
Cupping is one of most ancient methods for improving blood circulation. It involves placing suction cups on your body - usually, but not exclusively, on the back - and drawing your skin and outer layers of muscle up into them. This can either be done as an isolated process or in conjunction with other acupuncture treatments.
The therapy has gained attention in the West as an exotic, miracle cure, and its effects have been said to include everything from relieving muscle pain, reducing cellulite, assisting weight loss, controlling asthma, treating migraines, aiding fertility to curing depression.
If you ask a Chinese medicine practitioner, however, they'll typically tell you that cupping is used to get rid of the "dampness" in your body. Dampness is a prevalent term that refers to the pathogen that supposedly causes disease in a person; the sufferer of which will often experience fatigue and poor digestion.
What to expect
Above all else, prepare to live with a dozen large, reddish circular marks on your back for the rest of the week.
My session with a traditional Chinese practitioner begins with a brief consultation. We then move to another room, where I lie face down on a treatment table. One by one, the doctor heats up glass cups with a small flame before putting it on my back, giving my skin a warm feeling that swiftly turns into mild pain from the suction.
Suction cups of varying sizes are applied to six points on each side of my spine. They are arranged along the meridian lines and in a symmetrical pattern that's more concentrated on my upper back.
After staying still for around 10 minutes, I'm told that my body is quite "damp" when the doctor returns to remove the cups. My slight stiffness from lack of exercise isn't immediately relieved, but I do feel refreshed the following day.
My doctor advises that the process can be done as frequently as once every two days to prevent stagnation of blood flow, although it will probably depend more on one's readiness to live with marks that may look - to the uninitiated at least - like bruises from some sort of kinky torture session.
Wellsoon, 18 Yik Yam Street, Happy Valley, tel: 2739 5328, wellsoon.hk (HK$200/session)
What is it?
Acupuncture works to stimulate acupuncture points by using very fine needles to penetrate the skin. It is a relatively instantaneous way to relieve body pain and ease stiff muscles and it is also good for general health maintenance. There are various methods, including inserting the needles with bare hands or, like my Chinese practitioner, using the more hygienic way of flicking the needles into the skin through individual tubes.
What to expect
I tell my doctor that I have a crick in my neck on the left side and a stiff shoulder. After an examination, she explains that both ailments are due to the fact that my spine is slightly curved to the right, and that acupuncture can help to strengthen corresponding muscles and eventually correct the curvature.
She is very efficient, and in no time there are 16 needles in the back of my neck, leading down to my right arm. I lay face down and a heater is positioned above me to enhance the effect. The acupoints tingle and feel slightly numb. They don't hurt, except when I move my fingers, which triggers a point between my thumb and index finger. The numbness on my neck also increases if I move my head slightly. It's scary to feel literally pinned down by the needles, although the treatment wouldn't worry me so much if the problem and needles were elsewhere on my body. My suffering starts after the needles have been removed. The slide cupping that follows, which involves dragging a vacuum cup up and down my neck and my back, is extremely painful. The purpose is to banish the toxins that acupuncture could not get rid of.
My stiff shoulder and the numbness in my neck feel better, perhaps because I am now preoccupied with my back, which feels hot and raw for the following two days. The treatment also leaves behind several blood-red marks that take a week to fade, so it's probably not a good idea to try this if you're planning a junk trip.
Fook Ming Tong has six branches, including: G/F-1/F Diamond Building, 6 Tin Lok Lane, Wan Chai, tel: 2381 2325, fookmingtong.com.hk (30 mins, HK$350)
What is it?
Moxibustion uses the heat of burning mugwort incense sticks to boost blood circulation, especially around the joints. The dried leaves of mugwort, or Artemisia vulgaris, are known to have antibacterial and antifungal properties and has been used in both Western and Chinese medicine for centuries. The treatment is often used along with acupuncture as it is supposed to stimulate acupuncture points, improving the flow of qi in the body.
What to expect
I've always had problems with my knee joints; they are often very stiff. Once I had to have my left knee drained because of an acute joint inflammation.
Dr Chan inquires about my medical history, including drug allergies, and whether I'm sensitive to smoke. I tell her I use moxa sticks for the same purpose at home so I am used to the strong smell.
Chan explains that I'm the "cold" type (the result of poor blood circulation) so it's best for me to stay away from cooling foods such as melons and pears. The treatment will help "chase away the cold and dampness" in both knees.
I take off my trousers and wrap a towel around my waist to allow access to my knees. The clinic is very clean, and the bed, which I lie on, is covered with a thin disposable sheet.
She cleans my knees with alcohol and, initially, wants to stick needles into them. But I opt to only have the smoking treatment. Three burning moxa sticks are used in this 20-minute session. Two are secured inside separate (and wobbly) incense holders, which are placed on each thigh by my kneecaps. Chan moves the third one slowly over various acupuncture points around my knees. She warns that the heat will intensify, but the temperature is bearable throughout. However, she does accidentally burn me a couple of times with the stick.
The session yields instant results: my knees feel "oiled" and there is a spring in my step.
Don't wear anything expensive because the smell will get into your clothes. Chan advises me to drink plenty of water afterwards because the treatment is "heated" and dehydrating. She tells me not to take a cold shower that night, to keep my knees warm.
The service is very friendly and efficient, but a little costly, so I will stick to my home treatment.
Specialty Chinese Medical Centre, room 103, Lap Fai Building, 6-8 Pottinger Street, Central, tel: 3568 8207. specialtycmc.com (20 mins, HK$280)
What is it?
Gua sha, or scraping, is the one treatment no one on our team was keen to try. A smooth object, such as a spoon, coin or bone, is rubbed along your skin to cause light bruising and "scrape away fever", stimulating the flow of both blood and qi, and expelling toxins.
Gua sha uses the same principles of meridians and pressure points as acupuncture but on a more superficial level. Practitioners claim it can cure a long list of ailments, including muscle pain, colds and acne. Gua sha is commonly used together with cupping.
What to expect
Gua sha is notoriously painful. One colleague warned me it was "more painful than childbirth" and a Google image search resulted in hundreds of pictures of backs covered in red whip-like lines.
It can be applied to any part of the body, but is usually used on the back, which is where I have it done.
I take off my shirt and lie face down on a treatment table in a room that feels somewhere between a massage parlour and an operating theatre. First, my skin is lubricated with oil, then a smooth, flat stone is rubbed along the meridians of my back in short, firm strokes.
The strokes start slowly and softly, always in the same direction, but the speed and pressure gradually increases until I can really feel the stone scraping along my bones.
It is a strange sensation, the way I imagine a massage from a robot would feel: precise and impersonal.
The treatment lasts about 15 minutes and leaves faint red marks along my shoulders and spine, which disappear by the end of the day. It is a lot less painful than I expected, which, I am told, is because I have good circulation. The rash, or sha, usually lasts for two to four days.
I am told not to wash my back with cold water for 30 minutes after the treatment and to avoid fans and air conditioning. The feeling is similar to a Thai massage: not an entirely pleasurable experience, but my back muscles do feel relaxed.
Oriental Health, 18/F Shum Tower, 268 Des Voeux Road Central, Sheung Wan, tel: 2516 9866 orientalhealth.com.hk (15 mins, HK$300)
Suggestions for first-time treatments
More established and reputable Chinese practitioners rarely have an internet presence, as their reputations are mostly spread by word of mouth. Traditional Chinese medicine is all about finding a practitioner whose techniques match a patient's preferences, so you may need to visit a few clinics before you find the right one for you.
For first-time patients, here's a list of some of the big chains which have a more systematic approach to TCM, and whose practitioners are more approachable and communicative.
Various locations, including: room 1103, 11/F Chuang's Enterprises Building, 382 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay; tel: 3102 3918, tcmvillage.com
Hong Kong Baptist University Chinese Medicine Specialty Centre
Various locations, including: 3/F Tsimshatsui Kai Fong Welfare Association Building, 136A Nathan Road, TST; tel: 3411 3528, scm.hkbu.edu.hk
Integrated Medicine Institute
13/F & 17/F Kailey Tower, 16 Stanley Street, Central; tel: 2523 7121, imi.com.hk
Pok Oi Hospital Chinese Medicine Polyclinic
Various locations, including: Pok Oi Hospital Chinese Medicine Acupuncture Specialist Centre, 17/F Progress Commercial Building, 9 Irving Street, Causeway Bay; tel: 2416 7721, pokoi.org.hk
Beijing Tong Ren Tang
Various locations, including: shop 242, 2/F Shun Tak Centre, 168-200 Connaught Road Central, Sheung Wan; tel: 2858 0723, tongrentang.com.hk