What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a complete medical system that has been
used to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses for more than 2,000 years. TCM is
based on a belief in yin and yang—defined
as opposing energies, such as earth and heaven, winter and summer, and happiness
and sadness. When yin and yang are in balance, you feel relaxed and energized.
Out of balance, however, yinandyang negatively affect your health.
Practitioners also believe that there is a life force or energy in every
body, known as qi (pronounced "chee"). In order for yin and yang to be
balanced and for the body to be healthy, qi must be balanced and flowing freely.
When there's too little or too much qi in one of the body's energy pathways
(called meridians), or when the flow of qi is blocked, illness results.
The ultimate goal of TCM treatment is to balance the yinand
yangin our lives by promoting the natural flow of qi. In an
interesting analogy, often used to explain its nature, qi is described as the
wind in a sail; we do not see the wind directly, but we are aware of its
presence as it fills the sail.
What is the history of TCM?
The first writings about TCM date back to 200 B.C.E. Herbal medicine and
acupuncture, including theory, practice, diagnosis, and treatment, were recorded
in classical Chinese texts and refined over many centuries.
The practice of TCM stayed in Asia for centuries. Chinese immigrants had been
practicing TCM in the United States since the mid-19th century, but its
existence was unknown to most Americans before 1971. That year, New York
Times reporter James Reston, who was in China covering former President
Nixon's trip, had to have an emergency appendix operation. After the operation
he received acupuncture for pain, and his stories about this experience with TCM
fascinated the public. Since then, TCM has gone on to become a mainstream
alternative medicine practiced all over the world.
How does TCM work?
Disease (alterations in the normal flow of qi such that yin and yang are
imbalanced) is thought to have three major causes: external or environmental
factors, your internal emotions, and lifestyle factors such as diet. Through the
use of its therapeutic modalities, TCM stimulates the body's own healing
mechanisms. Practices used in TCM include:
- acupuncture and acupressure
- moxibustion (burning an herb near the skin)
- herbal medicine
- Chinese massage (called tui na)
- Exercise (such as tai chi and qi gong which combine movement with
In TCM, the body's internal organs are not thought of as individual
structures, but as complex networks. According to TCM, there are five organ
systems (kidney, heart, spleen, liver, and lung) through which qi flows via
meridians. Despite their specific names, these five systems correspond to more
than individual body parts. The kidney, for example, represents the entire
urinary system along with the adrenal glands that sit a top of the kidneys. The
heart represents both the heart and the brain.
What should I expect on my first visit?
The TCM practitioner will ask you questions about your medical history and
conduct a physical exam to look for signs of imbalance. He or she will examine
your skin, tongue, and hair, as well as other parts of your body (from the
brightness of your eyes to the color of your nails), and will check six pulses
on each of your wrists. The practitioner will also listen to your voice to
assess your shen (spirit), and will work to determine if one or more of
your organ networks are affected. He or she will then try to correct any
imbalances in your body by providing a combination of the therapies discussed
What is TCM good for?
Over the centuries, TCM has been used to treat countless conditions. Western
scientists are still studying its effectiveness for various diseases. Some of
the conditions for which TCM is known to be particularly helpful
- diabetes and its complications such as retinopathy (damage to the
retina located in the back of the eye)
- high cholesterol
- male and female fertility disorders
- Alzheimer's disease
- digestive disorders (such as irritable bowel syndrome)
- recurrent cystitis (inflammation of the
TCM may also be an effective treatment for the following
- pain (including childbirth and abdominal)
- menopausal symptoms
- infections (respiratory, bladder, vaginal)
- sleep disorders
Is there anything I should watch out for?
You should not treat yourself with Chinese herbs, especially if you are
pregnant or nusing. Over-the-counter herbal products are often poorly labeled,
and important information may be missing. Some herbal products contain drugs not
listed on their labels. For example, some Chinese herbal creams that are used to
treat eczema contain steroid medications. Also, be on the alert for Chinese
herbal medicines containing aristolochic acid. This acid, derived from an herb,
has been implicated in nearly 100 cases of kidney failure and even cancer. A
trained and certified TCM practitioner can identify herbs that are safe to take.
The practitioner should also explain the potential side effects of the herbs he
or she prescribes.
How can I find a qualified TCM practitioner?
To locate a qualified practitioner in your area, contact:
- The American Association of Oriental Medicine,
http://www.aaom.org/ or 888-500-7999
- The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental
Medicine, http://www.nccaom.org/ or
- The national Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance,
- The Institute of Traditional Medicine,
What is the future for TCM?
Already there are 35 Oriental medicine training programs in the United
States. Recently, nine Chinese medical institutions and Ohio University College
of Osteopathic Medicine joined forces to study how TCM can be applied to Western
medicine. Similarly, the University of Pittsburgh created an International TCM
Center to coordinate research efforts with TCM institutions in China. Future
research studies and clinical trials on TCM are needed to find out exactly how
it works, and its effectiveness, safety, and cost.
Alraek T, Aune A, Baerheim A. Traditional Chinese medicine syndromes in women
with frequently recurring cystitis: frequencies of syndromes and symptoms.
Complement Ther Med. 2000;8(4):260-265.
Armstrong NC, Ernst E. The treatment of eczema with Chinese herbs: a
systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Br J Clin Pharmacol.
Becker SA. Treatment by Chinese medicine: semen anomalies. J Chin Med.
Bensoussan A, Myers SP, Carlton Al. Risks associated with the practice of
traditional Chinese medicine: An Australian study. Arch Fam Med.
Bensoussan A, Talley NJ, Hing M, Menzies R, Guo A, Ngu M. Treatment of
irritable bowel syndrome with Chinese herbal medicine. JAMA.
Chan C, Ho PS, Chow E. A body-mind-spirit model in health: an Eastern
approach. Soc Work Health Care. 2001;34(3-4):261-282.
Chen TS, Chen PS. The liver in traditional Chinese medicine. J
Gastroenterol Hepatol. 1998;13:437-442.
Chen YY, Hsue YT, Chang HH, Gee MJ. The association between postmenopausal
osteoporosis and kidney-vacuity syndrome in traditional Chinese medicine. Am
J Chin Med. 1999;27(1):25-35.
Cheng JT. Review: drug therapy in Chinese traditional medicine. J Clin
Cohen MR. Herbal and complementary and alternative medicine therapies for
liver disease. A focus on Chinese traditional medicine in hepatitis C virus.
Clin Liver Dis. 2001;5(2):461-478, vii.
Ehling D. Oriental medicine: an introduction. Altern Ther Health Med.
Ergil KV. China's traditional medicine. In: Micozzi MS, ed. Fundamentals
of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. New York, NY: Churchill
Livingstone Inc.; 1996:185-223.
Fink MG, Wipperman B, Gehrke A. Non-specific effects of traditional Chinese
acupuncture in osteoarthritis of the hip. Complement Ther Med.
Glover C, Phillipson D, Leon C, et al. Traditional Chinese Medicine. Pharm
Guillaume G. Postmenopausal osteoporosis and Chinese medicine. Am J
Ignjatovic V, Ogru E, Heffernan M, Libnaki R, Lim Y, Ng F. Studies on the use
of "Slimax," a Chinese herbal mixture, in the treatment of human obesity.
Pharm Biol. 2000;38(1):30-35.
Kausland A. The treatment of constipation by Chinese medicine. J Chin Med.
Keane FM, Munn SE, du Vivier AW, Higgins EM. Analysis of Chinese herbal
creams prescribed for dermatological conditions. BMJ.
Lee MS, Yang KH, Huh HJ, et al. Qi therapy as an intervention to reduce
chronic pain and to enhance mood in elderly subjects: a pilot study. Am J
Chin Med. 2001;29(2):237-245.
Lewis CJ, Alpert S. Letter to Health Care Professionals on FDA Concerned
about Botanical Products, Including Dietary Supplements, Containing Aristolochic
Acid. Washington, DC: U.S. FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition;
May 31, 2000.
Li M, Chen K, Mo Z. Use of qigong therapy in the detoxification of heroin
addicts. Altern Ther Health Med. 2002;8(1):50-54, 56-59.
Luwen G. Wen dan tang and diabetic retinal disease. J Chin Med.
Mayer M. Qigong and hypertension: a critique of research. J Alt Comp Med.
Moyad MA, Hathaway S, Ni HS. Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and
other alternative medicines for prostate cancer
Nestler G. Traditional Chinese medicine. Med Clin North Am.
Nortier JL, Martinez MC, Schmeiser HH, et al. Urothelial carcinoma associated
with the use of a Chinese herb. N Engl J Med. 2000;342(23):1686-1692.
OU-COM. OU medical school teams with Chinese universities [press release].
Athens: Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine; April 29,
Parker MJ. Traditional Chinese herbal medicine. In: Novey DW, ed.
Clinician's Complete Reference to Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2000:203-218.
Tang JL, Zhan SY, Ernst E. Review of randomised controlled trials of
traditional Chinese medicine. BMJ. 1999;319:160-161.
Tao X, Lipsky PE. The Chinese anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive herbal
remedy Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F. Rheum Dis Clin North Am.
UPMC. Chinese government officials visit UPMC health system to establish ties
with International Traditional Chinese Medicine Center [press release].
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System; January 20,
Wong R, Sagar CM, Sagar SM. Integration of Chinese medicine into supportive
cancer care: a modern role for an ancient tradition. Cancer Treat Rev.
Yang CS, Lin CH, Chang SH, Hsu HC. Rapidly progressive fibrosing interstitial
nephritis associated with Chinese herbal drugs. Am J Kidney Dis.
Yuan R, Lin Y. Traditional Chinese medicine: an approach to scientific proof
and clinical validation. Pharmacol Ther. 2000;86:191-198.
Zell B, Hirata J, Marcus A, et al. Diagnosis of symptomatic postmenopausal
women by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners. Menopause.