Chinese Medicine

What is Chinese medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is thousands of years old and has changed little over the centuries. As a complete system of health care, Chinese medicine's basic concept is that a vital force of life surges through the body (also called Qi). Any imbalance to this life force can cause disease and illness, according to Chinese medicine. The imbalance, in turn, is caused by an imbalance in the opposite and complementary forces that make up the life force called yin and yang.

TCM is over 5,000 years old, and traces its roots back to the ancient Taoist philosophy. Ancient Chinese believed that humans are microcosms of the larger, surrounding universe, and are interconnected with nature and subject to its forces. Balance between health and disease is a key concept of this perception, and TCM treatment seeks to restore this balance through treatment specific to the individual. 

To regain balance, the belief is that the balance between the internal body organs and the external elements of earth, fire, water, wood, and metal must be adjusted.

Treatment to regain balance may involve:

  • Acupuncture

  • Moxibustion (the burning of herbal leaves on or near the body)

  • Cupping (the use of warmed glass jars to create suction on certain points of the body)

  • Massage

  • Herbal remedies

  • Movement and concentration exercises (such as tai chi)

TCM practices traditionally involve these steps to assess a person's condition: observation (especially the tongue), hearing or smelling, asking or interviewing, and touching or palpating (especially the pulse).

Acupuncture is a component of TCM in Western medicine and is considered to be established in certain settings because it has received the most study. Some herbal treatments used in TCM can function as medications and may have serious side effects. In 2004, for example, the FDA banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra due to complications, such as heart attack and stroke. Ephedra is a Chinese herb used in dietary supplements for weight loss and performance enhancement. However, the ban does not apply to TCM remedies or to herbal teas.

If you are thinking of using TCM, a certified practitioner is your safest choice. The federally recognized Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) accredits schools that teach acupuncture and TCM, and about one-third of the states that license acupuncture require graduation from an ACAOM-accredited school. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine offers separate certification programs in acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and Oriental bodywork.

TCM should not be used as a replacement for traditional treatment, especially for serious conditions, but it may be beneficial when used as complementary therapy. Since some TCM herbal medications can interfere or provoke toxicity when combined with Western medications, you should inform your doctor if you are using TCM.