Traditional Chinese Medicine: Another CAM Offering

Whenever anyone mentions traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to an uninitiated Westerner, it is hard not to picture a shadowed, mysterious apothecary shop, something in the Harry Potter tradition, lined with tall cupboards and leggy little cabinets filled with one tiny drawer after another brimming over with exotic dried roots and flowers and secret herbal blends.  Tending that shop is a deeply knowledgeable and respectful – but equally mysterious –  practitioner.  In fact, TCM is practiced today right alongside the best of Western medicine in nearly all modern China‘s clinics and hospitals.  And it is widely used in this country as well.

Traditional Chinese medicine is founded in Taoism, an ancient philosophical system dating back more than 5,000 years.  The basic concepts were documented in Chinese medicine’s basic text, Huang Di Nei Jing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor).

Fundamental to the practice is a conception of the human body and a view of the world that differs sharply from Western medical ideas.  TCM regards the body as an organic entity comprised of interdependent organs, tissues and other components.  Each part has a specific or distinct job or function, but the whole works together.  Further, the ancient Chinese perception of human beings as microcosms of the surrounding universe stresses an interconnected relationship with nature and sees the body as ever subject to natural forces.  Health and illness relate to balancing the body’s functions in relationship to itself as well as the world around it.

Some of the essential parts of traditional Chinese medicine include:

  • Yin-yang theory.  Absolutely central to TCM is the idea of two opposing, opposing but complementary, forces that together shape the world and all of life.
  • Meridians.  In the traditional Chinese medicine system, meridians are the pathways along which the body’s vital energy travels as it circulates around the body.  This energy or life force is also known as qi.  Health is seen as the ongoing process of establishing and maintaining balance and harmony in the circulation of this energy.
  • Eight principles.  TCM uses these eight chief principles to analyze symptoms and to catalog and categorize conditions: cold/heat; excess/deficiency; interior/exterior; and yin/yang.
  • Five elements.  These five elements help explain how the body works: fire, metal, water, earth and wood.  These elements correspond to specific organs and tissues in the body.
Acupuncture is probably the most familiar of TCM’s treatments in the West, followed by herbal remedies.  Some of the other practices – moxibustion, massage, cupping, dietary therapy and mind-body therapy – are less well-known but gaining ground.  It is hard to pin down exact numbers, but a 2007 survey found that 3.1 million Americans had used acupuncture in the year prior to the study.  There were some TCM 10,000 practitioners in the US in 1997; surely there are far more today.  
TCM practitioners should be approached with the same care and good sense you would apply to using any health care professional: ask about their education, qualifications and experience.  Find out about their training and licensure.  Ask your conventional health care providers for referrals or recommendation and, of course, let them know you are considering a traditional practitioner.
One of the most appealing aspects of TCM is that it emphasizes individualized treatment.  Practitioners use four traditional methods to evaluate a  patient’s condition:
  • Observing (especially the tongue)
  • Hearing/smelling
  • Asking/interviewing
  • Touching/palpating (especially the pulse)
Among their many therapies and treatments designed to promote or maintain  health as well as treat illness and disease, the two most common TCM approaches are herbal medicine and acupuncture:
  • Chinese herbal medicine.  The basic pharmacological reference used by TCM practitioners contains hundreds of medicinal substances.  These substances are mostly plant-based, but there are some based on animal and mineral products.  They are all classified according to their action on the body.  The herbs are typically made up into formulas and combinations and given as teas, tinctures, powders or capsules.  Many different parts of the plants are used: leaves, stems, roots, seeds and flowers.
  • Acupuncture.  Carefully trained practitioners seek to unblock the flow of energy around the body by stimulating specific points on the body, usually by inserting very thin metal needles through the skin.  
Next up: more about licensing and certifying practitioners; how the science and TCM get along; safety concerns, paying for treatment and more. 

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