What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Traditional Chinese medicine, also sometimes seen abbreviated as TCM, is a form of medicine which has been practiced in China for over 3,000 years, and is also widely practiced in other Asian nations as well. In the West, traditional Chinese medicine is viewed as alternative or complementary medicine, but in China it is the primarily modality of medical treatment for individuals suffering from ailments that range from depression to broken bones. Fundamentally, this type of medicine is about striking a balance between yin and yang, the masculine and feminine elements, and it is believed that medical problems stem from an imbalance in these elements which must be corrected.

A map of China.
A map of China.

To treat patients, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use several approaches, many of which have been adopted by other cultures as well. Massage, acupuncture, qigong, and herbs are all techniques for balancing yin and yang in various ways. Massage and acupuncture are both designed to stimulate the body, release blocked flows of energy, and bring about a sense of relaxation and well being. Qigong is a daily practice which is followed by adherents to keep their energy in balance, while herbs are available by prescription and over the counter to treat a wide range of ailments. Some practitioners also incorporate traditional folk remedies into their treatments as well.

Some people find that the local Chinatown is a good place to look for someone who practices traditional Chinese medicine.
Some people find that the local Chinatown is a good place to look for someone who practices traditional Chinese medicine.

The concepts which come together to create traditional Chinese medicine are incredibly complex, but all of them include the fundamental idea that the human body needs to have a balance of energy, or it will be unhealthy. Traditional Chinese medicine views the body as an integrated whole, rather than an assortment of parts which must be treated individually, and it also includes preventative medicine which is designed to prevent the body from getting sick. Practitioners undergo extensive training: below are included brief overviews of major concepts although they barely scratch the surface of this ancient medical tradition.

An elderly Chinese woman, who might practice Traditional Chinese Medicine.
An elderly Chinese woman, who might practice Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Some of the concepts integrated into the practice include the Three Jiaos theory, zang-fu, the five elements, and the concept of meridians.

Massage is one technique for balancing yin and yang.
Massage is one technique for balancing yin and yang.

The Three Jiaos breaks the body up into three regions, or jiaos, starting from the upper jiao, which starts at the ribcage, and working through the middle jiao, which includes the center of the body, down to the lower jiao, which includes the intestines, kidneys, bladder, and legs. According to the three jiaos theory, different parts of the body are responsible for different symptoms: asthma, for example, is linked with the upper jiao, which includes the lungs.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice.

Zang-fu involves the organs: according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the organs can be divided into yin, or zang, and yang, or fu. Each organ is assigned an element and a complementary organ: for example, the bladder and kidney are water organs, with the kidney being the yang organ, and they also act on each other. If the kidney has a problem, the bladder may be involved, and vice versa. The five elements are wood, air, water, fire, and metal, and various problems can be traced to imbalances in these elements, which ordinarily should coexist in harmony.

The meridians of the body are the lines through which energy travels. Various points along the meridians can be manipulated to address specific symptoms, and ideally energy should flow smoothly and without obstructions through the meridians. Massage and acupuncture both address the meridians, along with potential causes of blockage, which can cause illness.

Although some Westerners dismiss Traditional Chinese Medicine, it has been shown to be effective for many conditions in clinical trials. Many of the fundamental concepts are logical, especially given that they were conceived long before human anatomy and physiology were well understood. The essential idea that the body works together as a whole is quite sensible, and most Western doctors agree that balancing energy will create healthier, stronger, happier individuals. Practitioners can be found in most areas, especially those with a large Chinese community, and people interested in exploring Traditional Chinese Medicine can use their favorite search engine to locate a reputable practitioner in their area.

Traditional Chinese Medicine includes the use of herbs to treat a variety of ailments.
Traditional Chinese Medicine includes the use of herbs to treat a variety of ailments.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

GenevaMech

@ SevenSeas & Georgesplane- What type of training is required to become a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine? I have always been a big fan of alternative medicine. I am also well aware of the fact that 75% of all modern medicine is derived from plants and biotic materials. I am interested in learning more about what it takes to become an herbalist. Do I need to obtain a license? Is it required that I obtain a degree in alternative or herbal medicine?

Georgesplane

@ Sevenseas- I agree with your statements. My mother is a traditional Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist. She is good, and I rarely have to visit the doctor. She often prescribes me a number of Chinese herbs based on what my ailment is and what is going on with my body at the time. The herbs she prescribes works on my body as a system rather than addressing individual symptoms. She often examines my tongue, and asks me a slew of questions that I would have thought unrelated to what is going on at the time.

Currently I have been battling a cold which just so happened to occur around the time of my finals. She gave me a formula to take called Gan Mao Ling and told me to take a few every three to four hours. I swear that I feel about 95% within a half hour of taking them, the only symptoms of a cold being mild sweating. When they wear off, I begin to feel like I have a cold (body aches, headache, dizziness, sniffles, etc.). I don't think I could have done as well on my finals without them.

sevenseas

The Chinese medicine treats mind, body and spirit as a whole. Since we are complex beings, the philosophy of treating the whole being not just the symptoms is what is behind Chinese medicine. The ultimate goal is harmony and balance so as to maintain natural order of peace, health and joy.

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