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Tuina gets updated, TCM clinics boast spa like premises

TCM clinics boast spa-like premises and bilingual physicians to appeal to young, English-speaking customers

When an old rotator cuff injury flared up last year and refused to go away, Mr Gary Ong, 38, turned to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for help.

Having spent a few years working in China before the injury, he had grown aware of TCM and its various treatments, especially the therapeutic Chinese rubdown, tuina.

He looked up TCM clinics on the Internet and his search turned up Nanyang Technological University's Chinese Medicine Clinic, which offers tuina as one of its treatments.

The fact that the clinic was housed within the university gave him the confidence to "give it a go".

"The treatment was effective, the physicians were professional and I understood my shoulder problem better," says the vice-president in an automotive firm.

  • Chinese therapeutic massage

  • Tuina is a therapeutic form of massage that has been practised in China for more than 2,000 years.

    The non-invasive treatment involves applying pressure to acupoints such as the temples, and groups of muscles or nerves. Practitioners may brush, knead, roll, press and rub these areas.

    The process is believed to alleviate pain, swelling and the build-up of toxins by removing the blockages that interrupt qi - which refers to the "vital energy" of the body in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

    Tuina uses the same principles as acupuncture, except that the hands and fingers are used instead of needles.

    A tuina session typically lasts from 30 minutes to one hour. It is said to provide a deep sense of physical and mental relaxation, and can treat conditions including frozen shoulder, vertigo, migraines and various sprains and joint pains.

    It is not recommended for those with existing medical conditions such as tumours, heart diseases, bleeding disorders and severe skin lesions.

A massage that has been practised in China for more than 2,000 years, tuina involves applying pressure to acupoints such as the temples, and groups of muscles or nerves.

Practitioners may brush, knead, roll, press and rub these areas. The process is believed to alleviate pain, swelling and the build-up of toxins by removing the blockages that interrupt qi - which refers to the "vital energy" of the body.

The stereotype is that tuina traditionally appeals to those older than 40 and the Chinese-educated.

But it has won new and younger converts across races in recent years, such as English-speaking professionals like Mr Ong.

Tuina has come under the spotlight after a 26-year-old woman suffered seizures halfway through a two-hour session here, went into a coma and died two weeks ago.

Its success in appealing to a wider group of people can be attributed to factors including bilingual physicians, modern clinics and better branding through partnerships with institutions and companies.

TCM chain Kin Teck Tong signed a two-year partnership worth an estimated $200,000 earlier this month with the Basketball Association of Singapore. The collaboration will see the 49-year-old business, which has three clinics in Singapore, provide treatment services, including tuina, to national players for sports-related injuries.

This is Kin Teck Tong's second collaboration with a national sports association in two months. It announced a one-year tie-up worth $280,000 with Singapore Athletics in December last year.

It treats about 5,000 customers a month across its three clinics.

On the collaboration with Kin Teck Tong, the basketball association's honorary secretary Ong Swee Teck, 52, says tuina complements the "Western treatments" given by the national team's physiotherapists and is effective for the athletes' chronic injuries.

"If tuina can help as an alternative to Western treatment, why not?" he says.

National marathoner Soh Rui Yong, 24, first tried tuina in December, when he was battling plantar fasciitis, a tissue inflammation, at the bottom of his left foot.

He was told that tuina could improve circulation and help to heal his injured foot by a Kin Teck Tong physician, so he gave it a shot.

The treatment helped. He then recommended tuina to his father, who also suffered from the same condition.

"It helped release tension in his feet. He's gone back a few times since," says the 2015 SEA Games gold medallist.

Tuina providers have also raised their profile through various outreach methods.

Ma Kuang Healthcare Group, which was established in 1999 and has more than 20 clinics islandwide, holds talks and free tuina trials at various corporations here.

Econ Chinese Medicine, another major TCM chain here with close to 10 outlets, reaches out to preschools by giving talks and tuina demonstrations to parents and teachers at these centres.

Promotional packages are also marketed on Children's Day.

Beyond marketing efforts, being effectively bilingual in English and Mandarin has also helped TCM physicians here grow their customer base.

Madam Ong Chwee Ting, 52, a senior physician at Econ Chinese Medicine, says many English- speaking, non-Chinese potential customers have second thoughts about trying tuina when the physicians are unable to express or explain their services.

"It is much easier to build rapport when language is not a barrier," says the practitioner of more than 20 years.

Dr Goh Chye Tee, director of NTU's Chinese Medicine Clinic, says its physicians' ability to converse well in English has enabled it to reach out to the non-Chinese and young professionals, resulting in a 2 to 5 per cent increase in such patients at its clinic in the past two years.

One of them is Mr Ong, who liked that the clinic's physicians explained to him how they would treat him and why.

"They also asked me about my lifestyle and medical history. They were very customer-centric," he says.

Some players have started to rebrand themselves and move away from the traditional frills-free decor of TCM clinics.

Kin Teck Tong's newest clinic, which opened two months ago at Kallang Wave Mall, looks like a modern spa with its white and earthy-gold palette.

"It's a bright, modern space with a luxe feel," says its chief operating officer Eugene Sng, 39.

Many clinics, however, are still located in the HDB heartland and sport signboards with only Chinese characters.

The physicians cite other reasons for the increased demand for tuina.

Madam Ong says many young professionals prefer tuina as it is less invasive than treatments such as acupuncture. Her clients come from a wide range of professions, from IT and bank executives to civil servants.

"They find tuina soothing, relaxing and cheaper than a spa massage or physiotherapy session," she says.

The starting rate for a tuina session is about $30, while a basic spa or physiotherapy session costs about $80.

Clinics have also reported a rise in demand for paediatric tuina. Parents believe the treatment can boost their children's well-being, resulting in improved bowel movements, appetite and stronger immunity.

Since 2012, TCM chain Eu Yan Sang International has seen a "fourfold rise" in the number of takers for paediatric tuina who are aged below 12, said a spokesman.

Yu Guo Chinese Physician, which started in 1986 and claims to be the biggest private paediatric tuina centre here, had to hire more TCM physicians and now has a team of more than 10.

Financial planner Janice Lim, 35, sends her three children - aged four, two and four months - for tuina treatments. She began doing so after her eldest child started falling sick frequently after attending childcare. She had initially taken her daughter to Western doctors, but felt that the medication weakened the girl's body.

"For a whole year from the time she was 18 months old, she did not sleep well and had poor appetite," she says.

A friend suggested she send her daughter for TCM tuina treatments.

Ms Lim says the sessions restored her daughter's health.

She is so convinced about tuina's effectiveness that she has been attending paediatric tuina courses conducted by community centres to learn how to do the massages on her children.

"This is good because it's a natural remedy. Once I know how to do it, the treatment for my children will be free. I no longer need to send them to the TCM clinics," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Tuina gets updated'. Print Edition | Subscribe