Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient and still very vital holistic system of health and healing, based on the notion of harmony and balance, and employing the ideas of moderation and prevention.
TCM is a complete system of health care with its own unique theories of anatomy, health, and treatment. It emphasizes diet and prevention and using acupuncture
, herbal medicine, massage, and exercise
; and focuses on stimulating the body's natural curative powers.
In situations of severe trauma, TCM should not be substituted for contemporary modern trauma practice; it is most useful as an adjunct to the healing regimen. TCM is not the first line of treatment for bacterial infection or cancer
, but may usefully complement contemporary medical treatment for those conditions.
In theory and practice, traditional Chinese medicine is completely different from Western medicine, both in terms of considering how the human body works and how illness occurs and should be treated. As a part of a continuing system that has been in use for thousands of years, it is still employed to treat over one-quarter of the world's population. Since the earliest Chinese physicians were also philosophers, their ways of viewing the world and human beings role in it affected their medicine. In TCM, both philosophically and medically, moderation in all things is advocated, as is living in harmony with nature and striving for balance in all things. Prevention is also a key goal of Chinese medicine, and much emphasis is placed on educating the patient to live responsibly. The Chinese physician also is more of an advisor than an authority; he or she believes in treating every patient differently, based on the notion that one does not treat the disease or condition but rather the individual patient. Thus two people with the same complaint may be treated entirely differently, if their constitutions and life situations are dissimilar. Disease is also considered to be evidence of the failure of preventive health care and a falling out of balance or harmony.
There is some confusion in the West about the fundamental philosophical principles upon which traditional Chinese medicine is based—such as the concept of yin and yang, the notion of five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water), and the concept of chi—yet each can be explained in a way that is understandable to Westerners.
Yin and yang describe the interdependent relationship of opposing but complementary forces believed to be necessary for a healthy life. Basically, the goal is to maintain a balance of yin and yang in all things.
The five elements, or five phase theory, is also grounded in the notion of harmony and balance. The concept of chi, which means something like "life force" or "energy," is perhaps most different from Western ideas. TCM asserts that chi is an invisible energy force that flows freely in a healthy person, but is weakened or blocked when a person is ill. Specifically, the illness is a result of the blockage, rather than the blockage being the result of the illness.
Besides these philosophical concepts that differ considerably from infection-based principles of medicine and health, the methods employed by traditional Chinese medicine are also quite different. If allopathic Western practitioners could be described as interventionist and dependent on synthetic pharmaceuticals, TCM methods are mostly natural and noninvasive. For example, where Western physicians might employ surgery and chemotherapy
or radiation for a cancer patient, a TCM physician might use acupuncture and dietary changes. TCM believes in "curing the root" of a disease and not merely in treating its symptoms.
Another major difference is how the patient is regarded. In Western medicine, patients with similar complaints or diseases, usually will receive virtually the same treatment. In TCM however, the physician treats the patient and not the condition, believing that identical diseases can have entirely different causes. In terms of the principles upon which it is based and the methods used, traditional Chinese medicine, therefore, is considered by many in the West to be a radically different system of health care.
To some in the Western world, this very strangeness is the reason why it might be attractive. To others, tired of what they perceive as their physician's perfunctory, analytical, and sometimes cold manner, TCM offers a more humane, patient-oriented approach that encourages a high degree of practitioner-patient interaction and is not overly dependent on technology.
For example, during a consultation with a TCM practitioner, the patient will receive a considerable amount of time and attention. During the important first visit, the practitioner will conduct four types of examinations, all extremely observational and all quite different from what patients usually experience.
First, the practitioner will ask many questions, going beyond the typical patient history to inquire about such particulars as eating and bowel habits or sleep patterns. Next, the physician looks at the patient, observing his or her complexion and eyes, while also examining the tongue very closely, believing that it is a barometer of the body's health and that different areas of the tongue can reflect the functioning of different body organs. After observing, they listen to the patient's voice or cough
and then smell his or her breath, body odor, urine, and even bowel movements. Finally, the practitioner touches the patient, palpating his or her abdomen and feeling the wrist to take up to six different pulses. It is through these different pulses that the well-trained practitioner can diagnose any problem with the flow of the all-important chi
. Altogether, this essentially observational examination will lead the physician to diagnose or decide the patient's problem. This diagnosis is very different from one in contemporary Western medicine. No blood or urine samples are tested in a laboratory. The key to this technique lies in the experience and skill of the practitioner.
After making a diagnosis, the physician will suggest a course of treatment from one or all of the available TCM methods. These fall into four main categories: herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy, and massage and exercise. A typical TCM prescription consists of a complex variety of many different herbal and mineral ingredients. Chinese herbal remedies are intended to assist the body's own systems so that eventually the patient can stop taking them and never becomes dependent on them. Herbal formulas are usually given as teas, which differ according to the patient.
Other common techniques used in a TCM prescription are as follows:
- Acupuncture is based on the notion that the body's vital energy force, chi, travels through known channels or "meridians." The acupuncturist inserts tiny, thin sterile needles at particular, selected points on the body to unblock or correct the flow of energy. These needles are hardly felt as they are inserted and are left in place for 15 to 20 minutes. Some patients report immediate improvement, others feel exhilarated, while some feel like sleeping. In some cases, patients say their condition worsens before it improves. No contemporary scientific explanation exists as to how or why acupuncture works.
- Moxibustion is a variation sometimes employed. Moxibustion is the slow burning on or over the body of special herbal "cones." These are placed on specific acupoints and provide penetrating, relaxing heat.
- Massage is often recommended, and a deep finger pressure technique known as acupressure is often used to promote the proper flow of chi.
- Diet is considered essential to good health, and what might be called "kitchen medicine" is just another aspect of herbalism. One example is a delicious DQ black bean soup that is traditionally eaten by women in China after childbirth and each menstrual cycle.
- Therapeutic exercises are sometimes prescribed as well. In both the exact and flowing movements of tai chi, and the breathing techniques of Qi Dong exercise is considered essential to relieving stress and promoting the smooth flow of chi.
— Pertaining to conventional medical treatment of disease symptoms that uses substances or techniques to oppose or suppress the symptoms.
— The science of the body structure of an organism and its parts.
— That which pertains to the entire person, including the mind, body, and spirit.
— To examine the body by touching or pressing with the fingers or the palm of the hand.
— Injury or damage to the body.
As a system of total health care, TCM is prepared to deal with any physical or mental problem, condition, or disease. However, unlike Western medicine at its best, TCM is not able to render the kind of emergency crisis intervention that saves lives during physical traumas. Nonetheless, it works best at achieving its goal of practicing preventive medicine. It has proven effective in treating many types of aches and pains and in helping people with depression and fatigue
, as well as circulation and digestive problems. Overall, its emphasis on good diet and exercise, as well as on individual responsibility and moderation in all things, suggest that it is grounded in fundamentally sound principles.
In the hands of a qualified practitioner, TCM is very safe. However, there is a small chance of not only getting an infection from acupuncture, but also that an existing infection could be spread to other parts of the body by increased blood flow and circulation.
Traditional Chinese medicine seeks to harmonize and rebalance the entire human system rather than to treat just symptoms. Since proper internal balance is considered to be the key to human health, TCM strives to cure disease by restoring that balance and therefore allowing the body to repair itself. Its continuing medical goal is to detect and correct abnormalities before they cause permanent physical damage.
American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. 2520 Milvia St., Berkeley, CA 94704. (415) 841-3220.
American Association of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine. 4101 Lake Boone Trail, Suite 201, Raleigh, NC 27607. (919) 787-5181.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.