What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is one of the oldest forms of medicine, dating back over 5,000 years. Practitioners of TCM most commonly use acupuncture and herbs to treat patients, but there are a number of different modalities for treating various syndromes. TCM has become increasingly popular both as an standalone treatment and as a complementary course of treatment along with evidence-based medicine (EBM).

Understanding TCM

TCM practitioners focus on the functions of the body (such as breathing, digestion, and detoxification) in determining physiological and pathological changes of the human body. To diagnose and treat patients, practitioners consider the cause, location, function, environmental impact, and nature of the illness, as well as the patient’s emotions. TCM also emphasizes the significance in maintaining a healthy, balanced body. Some of the key principles that further describe the TCM approach include:

Yin/Yang
One of the most fundamental theories in TCM, yin and yang are defined as two opposite forces or energies that exist interdependently in nature to create a greater whole. One cannot exist without the other, and their interconnected relationship indicates how balance exists within the body.

Qi
Pronounced “chee,” qi refers to the energy or life force that flows throughout the body’s pathways. In Chinese medicine, these pathways are also known as meridians. The literal translation of qi means breath or air. Practitioners believe that when the energy is stagnant or the quality of qi is insufficient, health issues such as anxiety, depression, emotional stress, disease, or illness may occur.

8 Principles
In TCM, the 8 principles are a general method for diagnosing and describing the location and nature of the body’s imbalance. Categories include: yin/yang; heat/cold; interior/exterior; and excess/deficiency. This concept serves as the guide for all disease identification. For example, the location or severity of the illness can be identified as interior or exterior; the symptoms may be described as heat or cold; and the condition of the ailment may be categorized as an excess or deficiency. Overall, and in some cases, yin/yang may describe the other six principles.

TCM Therapies

In order to diagnose the patient’s imbalance for proper treatment, the practitioner may evaluate the condition (shape, color, and coating) of the tongue, the strength of pulse points, the smell of breath, and/or the quality of breathing. Practitioners may use a variety of modalities for treatments. Treatments are catered toward the individual and not solely to the symptoms, so two people with similar symptoms might receive different treatments depending upon their individual constitutions and lifestyle. The most common TCM treatments are acupuncture, herbs, nutrition, massage/acupressure, and qigong. Moxabustion and cupping are two additional therapies that are often used to treat muscle aches, pains, and other musculoskeletal issues. Here’s a brief guide to different types of TCM treatments:

Acupuncture
Acupuncture is a practice of placing of tiny, sterile needles through the skin in order to stimulate acupressure points targeting specific organs and functions of the body, while bringing balance to the flow of qi.

Chinese Herbs
Chinese herbs are medicinal substances prescribed for their healing properties and known for restoring balance in the body. Chinese herbal treatments are mostly plant-based, but occasionally use mineral or animal products. They may come in the form of tea, pills, powders, lotions, pastes, and tinctures. Herb concoctions are typically created and prescribed specifically for the patient’s diagnosis, although pills are available for more generic symptoms.

Nutrition/Dietary Changes
TCM practitioners see diet as the first line of defense against disease. Like herbs, in Chinese medicine, foods are considered to have healing or damaging properties depending on how they affect one’s constitution or ailment. Foods are categorized by either flavor (sweet, sour, pungent, salty, or bitter) or by nature (cool, cold, warm, and hot/spicy). Practitioners believe that how food is cooked and prepared can affect the nature of the food, and how it will assimilate in the body.

Moxabustion
This technique involves burning mugwort, a small spongy herb, to stimulate qi and strengthen blood. The heated herb can be placed on top of the acupuncture needle or indirectly placed near an area that is considered stagnant.

Cupping
One of the oldest forms of TCM, cupping involves placing one or more glass or bamboo on a portion of skin, usually from the back or stomach. The air inside the cup is then heated, creating  suction. The cups can be placed there for several minutes or moved across the skin. Cupping usually leaves red marks from the rim of the cup, and light bruising may occur. Practitioners say that this practice stimulates the lymphatic system, and enhances blood circulation, although scientific evidence is lacking.

Tui Na/Chinese Massage/Acupressure
Known by several different names, tui na is therapeutic massage designed for the specific needs of the patient, used by practitioners to bring the body back into balance. Practitioners believe that the effects of Chinese massage can be compared to acupuncture, and sometimes describe it as acupuncture without the needles.

Qigong and Tai chi
These gentle exercises integrate various postures with deep breathing and mental focus. People use these exercises to build strength, promote flexibility, calm the mind, and restore balance in the body.

If You’re Considering TCM

Here are some tips to ensure that you receive the best care possible:

  • Look for a practitioner who has formal training, national certification, and an active license to practice.
  • If you’re considering herbal remedies, seek guidance from someone who is certified in this field. You’ll also want to ensure that any herbs you’re prescribed are compatible with current treatments or other medications you might be taking.
  • Be sure to inform your primary care provider of all of your alternative health care and health management practices. This will help ensure that you receive safe, coordinated, and optimal care for achieving your health goals.
  • If you’re pregnant, nursing, or considering TCM to treat a child, consult your primary health care provider before beginning any treatment.

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