Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a medical system that began its development in China about 5,000 years ago. To tell you the truth, it’s hard to explain what TCM is in simple words. My grandfather always tells me “TCM is an indispensable part of the splendid Chinese culture” and it is based on some theories in Chinese philosophy. I don’t know much about philosophy, but I do know ancient Chinese philosophers believed that our body interacted with all aspects of life and the environment. The aspects included the seasons, weather, time of day, our diet and emotional states. TCM sees the key to health as the harmonious and balanced functioning of body and spirit.
Does my explanation puzzle you? If you feel it is complicated to understand, it’s reasonable. TCM is based on some ancient beliefs in China. To help you better understand what it is, I’ll introduce you to some basic ideas.
What is the basis of Traditional Chinese medicine?
- TCM is based on a philosophy of balance with nature. The understanding of the human body is based on the holistic understanding of the universe. The human body is a miniature version of the larger, surrounding universe. In other words, individuals are viewed as a part of the forces of nature.
- TCM believes a human’s body is a self-regulating system. Internally, it regulates to achieve a balance between each part, but sometimes it needs some outside help(with the help of TCM) to achieve that balance.
- Qi,(pronounced chee), is also called life energy or vital energy that flows through the body, and it performs multiple functions in maintaining health. Qi runs throughout our body, though it can’t be directly measured, or even detected through any known means. TCM believes it does exist and it’s always on the move and constantly changes. TCM practitioners see disease as the result of disruptions in the movement or the transformation of qi.
- Health is the result of a balance between yin and yang. Yin and yang are two opposing yet complementary forces in all things, for example, female-male, dark-light and old-young. Everything in life has a little bit of its opposite, too. When you balance the yin and yang of qi, you feel healthy and well. If they’re out of whack, you feel sick. Yin and yang are also used to describe the qualities of qi.
So far, are you still with me? I guess you may get a general understanding of TCM, but you still don’t know what exactly it is. Don’t worry. All you need to do is to remember TCM helps live in harmony with the natural environment with the aim of keeping all aspects of a person including mind, body, and spirit, in a state of harmony and balance so that disease never has a chance to develop.
How is Traditional Chinese medicine different to Western medicine?
In theory and practice, TCM is completely different from Western medicine, both in terms of considering how the human body works and how illness occurs and should be treated.
The word “patient” has different meanings for Western medicine and TCM. From the perspective of Western medicine, a patient would be viewed as a basically healthy individual with a particular problem. In Chinese medicine, however, the disease is not viewed as something that a patient has. It is an imbalance in the patient’s being. Therefore, Western medicine focuses mainly on treating disease. But TCM looks at your entire well-being. Western medicine tends to view the body a lot like a car. It has different systems that need the right inputs and outputs. It’s very concrete and logical, whereas TCM is based on balance, harmony, and energy. One of its guiding principles is to “dispel the bad and support the good”. In addition to treating illness, TCM focuses on strengthening the body’s defenses and enhancing its capacity for healing and maintaining health.
In TCM, treatment is not based only on the symptoms, but differentiation of syndromes. A patient goes to see a TCM doctor. When the doctor evaluates the syndrome, he or she considers not only the cause, mechanism, location, and nature of the disease but also the confrontation between pathogenic factors and body resistance. Therefore, those with identical diseases may be treated in different ways, and on the other hand, different diseases may result in the same syndrome and are treated in similar ways. I know this is difficult to understand. Let me share two examples.
One day two patients with the same symptom of high fever and constipation went to see a famous TCM doctor. One was given herbal medicines to relax the bowels. The other got medicines to induce perspiration. Surprisingly they were recovering. When asked, the doctor answered, “The same symptoms resulted from different causes. One patient suffered from exogenous pathogenic factors. The other was attacked by internal damp heat. So they were treated differently.” The other day, two women patients with different symptoms went to the TCM doctor. One was diagnosed with gastroptosis(the abnormal downward displacement of the stomach), and the other was attacked by hysteroptosis(the abnormal downward displacement of the uterus). The doctor prescribed the same medicines. The patients were puzzled, and the doctor explained, ” Your gastroptosis and her hysteroptosis are both caused by sinking of middle qi, so I used the same medicine to elevate it.” Treatment based on syndrome differentiation, one of the characteristics of TCM, is the basic principle in TCM for understanding and treating diseases.
Many people believe the main difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine is that Chinese medicine seeks to treat the body as a whole, while Western medicine focuses on the main problem area. Neither one is wholly right nor wholly wrong; instead, they complement one another. I feel the same.
Do you know the ways of treatment in TCM? Have you ever tried any of them? In the following, let’s focus on the third question.
What are the methods of treatment in Traditional Chinese medicine?
As well as giving a diagnosis, TCM also includes many treatments to help people stay healthy, including acupuncture, moxibustion(burning an herb above the skin to apply heat to acupoints), Chinese herbal medicine, tuina(Chinese therapeutic massage), qi gong(practices that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus) and cupping.
Let me introduce them to you one by one.
Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body-most often by inserting thin needles through the skin. I know you want to ask”Does acupuncture hurt?”Surprisingly, although needles are used in acupuncture, treatments are relatively pain-free. In fact, one of the most popular uses of acupuncture is to reduce chronic pain throughout the body in a natural way, and you don’t need to worry about unwanted side effects.
A burning cigar-shaped moxa stick is usually made of herbs, which are called mugwort or wormwood. The stick is held near acupoints to stimulate them with heat and improve the flow of qi.It is used along with acupuncture and TCM practitioners may recommend it for improvement of general health as well as for cancer and treatment of chronic conditions such as arthritis and digestive disorders.
Chinese herbal medicine:
In TCM, herbal medicine includes thousands of medicinal substances. Most of them are plants, but there are also some minerals and animal products. Different parts of plants, such as the leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds, are used. In TCM, herbs are often combined in formulas and given as tea, capsules, liquid extracts, or powders.
Generally speaking, tuina is used in TCM to treat diseases with muscles. Practitioners may brush, knead, roll, press and rub the suffering body parts. For example, if you suffer from back pain, a practitioner may press and rub your back, and then use a range of motion, traction, massage, with the stimulation of acupressure points.
Qigong has a history of over 5,000 years. It is a mind-body practice as well as an energetic form of movement. People practice it to enhance the flow of qi in the body. By integrating posture, body movements, breathing and focused intention, qigong is designed to improve mental and physical health. Some experts believe that there are more than 3,000 different styles of qigong in existence today.
This 2,500-year-old practice involves placing special cups filled with heated air on painful areas of the body. As the cups cool, the volume of air within them shrinks, creating suction on the skin that increases blood flow to the area. It is commonly used to ease aches and pains, relieve respiratory problems, lessen coughs and wheezing and improve circulation. Cupping can leave bruises that can take a week or more to fade. The mysterious dots on Michael Phelps at the 2016 Rio Olympics were the result of cupping. Many athletes admit cupping saves them from a lot of pain.
Gua sha is a traditional Chinese medical treatment that involves scraping the skin with a massage tool to improve circulation and promote healing. The tool used for gua sha is typically made of jade or other smooth materials and is scraped across the skin in a particular pattern. The treatment is believed to help release tension and promote the flow of Qi in the body. Gua sha is often used to treat pain, inflammation, and other health conditions.
Do you think TCM is mysterious and magical? In fact, it is not as strange as you’ve imagined. If you don’t believe me, you can go to a TCM practitioner to experience when you need to see a doctor. Let’s try to find what to expect on a visit to a TCM practitioner.
What happens when you visit a TCM practitioner?
During your first visit, a TCM practitioner will make a detailed assessment of your overall health in order to identify any imbalance. The practitioner will use four methods of diagnosis(四诊 sizhen). These four methods include observation(望诊 wangzhen), auscultation and olfaction(闻诊wenzhen), interrogation(问诊 wenzhen), and pulse feeling and palpation(切诊qiezhen). The moment you walk into the clinic, the practitioner has begun the observation. He or she observes your complexion, the way you walk, the voice of your talking, the brightness of your hair, etc. While you are seated, the doctor will examine the pulse of each arm with his index, middle, and ring fingers. The rhythm, strength and volume of your pulse will be described with qualities like” floating, slippery, feeble, thready and quick”. Each of the qualities indicates a certain disease pattern. Meanwhile, you will be asked to show your tongue to examine its shape, size, color and texture. Then the practitioner will ask you about your subjective sensations of temperature, such as “What do you habitually feel, hot or cold?” You’ll also be asked about your sleep habits, the state of your appetite and digestion, and your thirst levels. If you report pain, the practitioner will ask what makes it better or worse. Then, a treatment plan will be customized for you to support the flow of qi in your body. This may include acupuncture, dietary advice, prescription of one or more herbal formulas or a combination of treatments.
Besides what I have told you above, below are some facts about TCM to help you understand more about it.
TCM has clear branches.
TCM is not just about taking a patient’s pulse and drinking herbal potions.It has clear branches, just as Western medicine does.
Most TCM drugs are acquired easily from plants.
Chinese people have used nature’s power to keep them healthy for a long time. For example, the most well-known TCM herbs are goji berries, ginger, and cinnamon. Goji berries can nourish the liver and kidneys, benefits essence and blood, therefore many people, especially middle-aged men, like to drink goji berry tea to preserve health.
There’s no fixed recipe in TCM.
The same medicinal materials with different ratios can have different effects. Some curative formulas might become harmful due to improper ratios. The recipe of each prescription is adjusted based on the patient’s physical condition. Therefore, without professional consultation, you can’t just use herbal medicine or treatment because of little side effects.
TCM hospitals are not 100%traditional nowadays.
In China, if you find TCM doctors carrying out a blood pressure monitor, don’t feel surprised. Nowadays, machines are also used in TCM hospitals to help doctors make a diagnosis. Normally, patients can choose whether to take Western medicine or herbal concoctions and other TCM treatments.
After my introduction, have you been attracted by TCM which has withstood the tests of time? As time goes on, we all believe it will be better and more accepted by more people in the future.