Traditional Chinese Medicine

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  • Background
  • Theory
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TCM places strong emphasis on herbal medicine since herbs can be taken every day. Herbs are usually given in the form of manufactured or processed pills, extracts, capsules, tinctures, or powders. This contrasts with the raw and dried form used in the more informal and older forms of practice. There are more than 2,000 different kinds of herbs of which about 400 are commonly used.


TCM has herbal regimens for use with major illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease. Herbal combinations are commonly used to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and improve immune functioning in cancer and to improve cardiovascular health in heart and circulatory diseases. Other herbal combinations are used in diabetes, infections, and other conditions.

Chinese medicine is a broad term encompassing many different modalities and traditions of healing. They share a common heritage of technique and theory rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy (Taoism), elements of which are believed to date back over 5,000 years. The first recorded use of TCM is said to have been around 2,000 years ago.


The phrase traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is actually a recent development with a specific meaning in the long history of Chinese medicine. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Chinese government undertook an effort to combine many diverse forms of Chinese medicine into a unified system to be officially defined as traditional Chinese medicine. The intent was to integrate the country's large workforce of traditional practitioners into an organized health service delivery system. This would aid in providing care for a large population by using familiar and inexpensive methods.


Because TCM and Western medicine are used side by side in modern China, China is relatively advanced compared to Western countries in using the concept of "integrative medicine." TCM figures are prominently in treatment and planning of services -- including for major illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), TCM is fully integrated into the Chinese health system with 95% of Chinese hospitals practicing it. As an example of such integration, it is common that children being treated with intravenous antibiotics are simultaneously treated with Chinese herbs in order to counteract the side effects of the antibiotic and boost the child's immune system.


TCM practitioners may call upon a wide range of other modalities from meditation and martial arts to feng shui, cupping and moxibustion.


In the West, TCM offers a popular alternative to conventional medicine. Despite this growing popularity, there is debate as to the evidence of its effectiveness. The modality within TCM with the largest body of evidence is acupuncture. Few well-designed trials of TCM herbal formulas are available. Establishing and applying stronger clinical trial methodologies in TCM is imperative for integrating it with modern medicine and achieving the end goal of creating evidence-based options for patient care.

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism provided the basis for the development of Chinese medical theory. Taoist principles as described below are present throughout the literature and teachings of the many forms of Chinese medicine.


Nature and the laws that govern the on-going, harmonious flow of life energy through the natural world are used to understand the body and health. The person is viewed as an ecosystem that is embedded in, and related to, the larger ecosystem of nature and subject to the same laws.


The life force, chi (qi), circulates through the body and enlivens it. Health is a function of a balanced, harmonious flow of chi and illness results when there is a blockage or an imbalance in the flow of chi. Yin and yang are opposite and complementary qualities of life energy (chi). Yin is regarded as the feminine principle and yang the masculine principle.


The human being has a system of pathways called "meridians" (also sometimes called "channels") through which the chi flows. The body has been mapped with these meridians that pass through all its organs, and specific meridians correspond with specific organs or organ systems ("organ networks," below). Health is an ongoing process of maintaining balance and harmony of the circulation of chi through all of the organs and systems of the body.


Symptoms are regarded as signals of impaired flow or circulation of chi through the body. Symptoms are considered as part of a larger picture or pattern affecting the whole person. The practitioner seeks to connect seemingly unrelated symptoms and develop a unifying explanation of what is going on with the person's chi overall.


Most modern diseases are considered "chi deficiency" diseases, caused by not maintaining or supporting a harmonious internal ecology. Harmony and disharmony are understood in two main conceptual frameworks: the eight principles and the five elements, described below.


The eight principles are actually four pairs of complementary opposites describing patterns of disharmony within the person. Briefly the principles are interior/exterior, referring to the location of the disharmony in the body (internal organs vs. skin or bones); hot/cold, referring to qualities of the disease pattern, such as fever or thirst vs. chilliness or desire to drink warm liquids; full/empty, referring to whether the condition is acute or chronic and whether the body's responses are strong or weak; and the balance of yin/yang, which adds further to the description of the other six principles. The eight principles are the theoretical basis of the TCM approach.


The five elements are fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. These terms do not refer to basic constituents of matter, but are dynamic qualities of nature. They are used to describe the changing qualities of chi energy as it circulates through the person. Five element theory is the basis of traditional acupuncture (also referred to as classical or five element acupuncture), which does not use herbs. However, some TCM practitioners also use the concept of the five elements.


The body has five organ networks, each corresponding with a particular element: heart/small intestine with fire, spleen/stomach with earth, lungs/large intestine with metal, kidneys/bladder with water, and liver/gall bladder with wood. The organ networks are named for the common meridian that circulates through and connects the organs, as it circulates chi throughout the larger, body-wide, meridian system. The practitioner's efforts to harmonize the five elements promote greater harmony in the functioning of all the organ networks.

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Note: MojoGuru does not recommend any treatment, therapy or particular provider. We do not recommend that you self-diagnose. If you are suffering from a health condition and before starting a new treatment or therapy, we do recommend that you first consult a GP. More