Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) refers to a group of alternative medical practices that originated in China. With a long history that spans more than 2,000 years, it now has several branches and can be used to treat a wide range of health problems. Until the present time, it is widely practiced not just in China but also in various parts of the world. The main concepts that form the basis of TCM are the Qi, Yin and Yang, and the theory of the five elements.
As with all types of alternative medicine, TCM should be used with precaution. Patients who plan to combine it with conventional medicine should always inform their doctor before doing so.
Traditional Chinese medicine employs a variety of techniques and its different branches share the same foundational concepts in treating a wide range of diseases and promoting optimum overall health. According to TCM, the human body is simply a smaller version of the universe, and an energy called Qi flows through it by following specific channels, also known as meridians to which all organs of the body are connected. If, for some reason, the flow of Qi or energy through the body is disrupted, a person will become vulnerable to illnesses.
The flow of the Qi is thought to be affected by:
Aside from the Qi, another popular Chinese medicinal concept is that of Yin and Yang, which are opposing forces that create a balance within the body. If this balance is disrupted, the body also becomes susceptible to diseases.
Chinese medicine states that in order to restore a person's health, the balance of his mind, body, and spirit should first be restored.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body's balance can be restored through the following:
Herbal medicine – Chinese medicines are made from a combination of herbs, roots, leaves, flowers, seeds, powders, and animal substances. The medicines come in capsules, granules or powders, liquid form, and teas.
Acupuncture – This is a medicinal treatment wherein very thin needles are inserted at the spots marking the body's meridians. It is stated that it restores the correct flow of the Qi. Acupuncture is believed to be helpful in treating nausea, vomiting, post-surgical pain, headaches, menstrual cramps, joint and muscle aches, low back pain, asthma, and carpal tunnel syndrome, among many others.
Acupressure – The concept is similar to acupuncture, but acupressure uses the fingers instead of needles to apply pressure on the body's meridians to stimulate the proper circulation of the Qi.
Moxibustion – This is performed by burning a piece of herb called the moxa or Chinese mugwort just above the skin as a means of applying heat to the body. Since it is considered as a warm and dry therapy, it is said to be effective in treating conditions that are common during cold and rainy seasons, such as arthritic joint pain. Additionally, it is also used in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and chronic fatigue.
Cupping therapy – This is a treatment wherein a warm glass is placed upside down on the body to create suction. This causes some pressure that helps stimulate proper Qi flow.
Chinese therapeutic massage or Tui na – While similar in manner to other types of therapeutic massage, the Chinese masseuse is guided by the location of the body's meridians.
Tai chi or QiGong – This refers to a series of exercises that are believed to provide mind and body benefits such as improved mental focus and better overall health. It is made up of a combination of gentle body movements, breathing exercises, and meditation. Tai chi is helpful in preventing chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, depression, and cancer by keeping the body in a relaxed and balanced state and keeping stress at bay.
Diet therapy – This branch of Chinese medicine categorizes different types of food as either Yin or Yang, and a person has to consume both types in equal amounts to keep the body in balance.
Traditional Chinese medical practices are considered safe, but some of them may require special expertise and should thus be performed only by an experienced practitioner to ensure patient safety.
Acupuncture, for one, has been associated with some serious side effects, especially when not performed properly. These risks include:
There have also been concerns about the serious dangers of using unsterile needles during an acupuncture treatment. To ensure the safety of the patients, needles used for acupuncture sessions should be single-use, non-toxic, and sterile.
Moxibustion is also associated with the risks of:
The use of herbal medicine has also been associated with the risk of side effects blamed mostly on the possible contamination of the ingredients used with heavy metals and toxins.
Using herbal medicine in conjunction with other drugs and supplements may also put the patient at risk of dangerous drug interactions and allergic reactions, especially if their ingredients are unknown or unfamiliar to the patient. Chinese herbal drugs may also be unsafe for patients suffering from some medical conditions. Thus, Chinese alternative medicine is best used under the supervision of a medical professional.
Among the different types of traditional Chinese medical practices, Tai chi and Qi Gong are considered the safest as they both pose little to no risk to the patient.
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Chan E, Tan M, Xin J, et al. Interactions between traditional Chinese medicines and Western therapeutics. Current Opinion in Drug Discovery & Development. 2010;13(1):50–65.