Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture

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July 02, 2012
Edward Smith

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China and has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use herbs, acupuncture, and other methods to treat a wide range of conditions. In the United States, TCM is considered part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

  • Herbal remedies and acupuncture are the treatments most commonly used by TCM practitioners.
  • TCM’s view of how the human body works, what causes illness, and how to treat illness is different from Western medicine concepts. Some Chinese herbal remedies may be safe, but others may not be.
  • TCM is typically delivered by a practitioner. Before using TCM, ask about the practitioner’s qualifications, including training and licensure.
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use.

Traditional Chinese medicine, which encompasses many different practices, is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism and dates back more than 5,000 years. Today, TCM is practiced side by side with Western medicine in many of China’s hospitals and clinics.
Underlying the practice of TCM is a unique view of the world and the human body that is different from Western medicine concepts. This view is based on the ancient Chinese perception of humans as microcosms of the larger, surrounding universe–interconnected with nature and subject to its forces. The human body is regarded as an organic entity in which the various organs, tissues, and other parts have distinct functions but are all interdependent. In this view, health and disease relate to balance of the functions.
The theoretical framework of TCM has a number of key components:

  • Yin-yang theory–the concept of two opposing, yet complementary, forces that shape the world and all life–is central to TCM.
  • In the TCM view, a vital energy or life force called qi circulates in the body through a system of pathways called meridians. Health is an ongoing process of maintaining balance and harmony in the circulation of qi.
  • The TCM approach uses eight principles to analyze symptoms and categorize conditions: cold/heat, interior/exterior, excess/deficiency, and yin/yang (the chief principles). TCM also uses the theory of five elements–fire, earth, metal, water, and wood–to explain how the body works; these elements correspond to particular organs and tissues in the body.
  • These concepts are documented in the Huang Di Nei Jing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor), the classic Chinese medicine text.

TCM emphasizes individualized treatment. Practitioners traditionally used four methods to evaluate a patient’s condition: observing (especially the tongue), hearing/smelling, asking/interviewing, and touching/palpating (especially the pulse).
TCM practitioners use a variety of therapies in an effort to promote health and treat disease. The most commonly used is acupuncture. Acupuncture is done by stimulating specific points on the body, most often by inserting thin metal needles through the skin, practitioners seek to remove blockages in the flow of qi.1

1. Partap Khalsa, D.C.PhD, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute of Health, Traditional Chinese Medicined , 1/18/2012

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