What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

You may sometimes notice athletes or celebrities with purple circles on their skin from cupping. Or maybe you know someone who swears by acupuncture for their back pain or herbal teas for colds. More and more, people use practices like these from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to not only fight disease, but also prevent it.

TCM is an ancient system of health and wellness that’s been used in China for thousands of years. Western medicine focuses mainly on treating disease. But TCM looks at your entire well-being.

Is it safe to try and will it work? With a little background on how it’s used, you can make more informed choices to improve your health.

What’s the Idea Behind TCM?

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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.

TCM, on the other hand, doesn’t focus on science and medicine. Instead, it’s based on balance, harmony, and energy. There are two central ideas behind TCM:

Qi: This is also called life energy or vital energy. The belief is that it runs throughout your body. It’s always on the move and constantly changes. TCM treatments often focus on ways to promote and maintain the flow of qi.

Yin and Yang: These are opposites that describe the qualities of qi.

  • Yin: night , dark, cold, feminine, negative
  • Yang: day, light, warm , positive, male

The belief is that everything in life has a little bit of its opposite, too, and balance is the key. For example, a drug from your doctor might heal disease. But it’s dangerous if you take too much of it.

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According to TCM, these ideas play out in our bodies. When you balance the yin and yang of Qi, you feel healthy and well. If they’re out of whack, you feel sick. TCM aims to create harmony and a healthy flow of qi.

What Kind of Practices Does TCM Use?

What Kind of Practices Does TCM Use?

Several. They include:

  • Acupuncture: very fine needles placed gently in the skin
  • Cupping: heated cups that create suction on your skin
  • Herbs: teas, powders, and capsules made mostly from plants
  • Meditation: a way to sit quietly and calm your mind
  • Moxibustion: dried herbs burned near the skin
  • Tai chi: exercise with slow movements and focus on the breath

Is It Safe?

Experts believe it’s safe, if you go to someone who knows what they're doing. This is especially true of acupuncture, tai chi, cupping, and moxibustion.

Herbs can be a little trickier. They don’t go through the same FDA process as drugs. That means there’s not as much research on them, and it can be hard to know exactly what’s in them. Plus, herbs can have side effects or impact other medicine you’re taking. Again, it’s important to go to someone who really understands their practice. And always check with your doctor first.

Does It Work?

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TCM is an approach that covers a lot of ground, and results vary. The practices haven’t been studied in the same way as Western medicine. More research has been done on herbs and acupuncture than other treatments. But studies show a lot of promise:

  • Acupuncture is commonly accepted as a treatment for a number of conditions, including pain relief and limiting side effects from chemotherapy.
  • A number of herbs used in TCM are also used at well-respected, Western medicine clinics to treat anything from trouble sleeping to arthritis to menopause.
  • Tai chi seems to improve balance in people with Parkinson’s disease.
  • Cupping may help relieve pain from shingles.

Who Should Use It?

That’s a personal decision. People use TCM for anything from carpal tunnel syndrome to lowering stress. Sometimes they use it along with Western medicine. It may be a good choice if you:

  • Have a lot of different symptoms with no clear cause
  • Need to treat side effects from drugs
  • Have tried Western medicine but didn’t get results
  • Want to prevent illness

Who Should Avoid TCM?

In general, doctors suggest you don’t use it to totally replace Western medicine, especially if you have a serious condition like cancer or liver disease.

They also urge caution, especially with herbs, if you’re:

  • Elderly
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Scheduled for surgery (some herbs could lead to bleeding problems or prevent drugs used during surgery from working)
  • Taking other medicine as well
  • Treating a child

What Do Traditional Doctors Think of TCM?

They want to see proof that something is safe and works well before they suggest you try it. That often makes it hard for them to recommend TCM. But on the whole, research and interest in TCM is on the rise.

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You can also find many leading health care centers, like the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins offering TCM practices such as acupuncture and herbal treatments.

How Do I Find Someone Who Practices TCM?

Your best bet is to find someone certified by the Accreditation Committee for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM). They accredit schools that teach TCM, and you can check their website to find someone.

Another option is to get in touch with a school of Oriental medicine. They can sometimes refer you to their alumni.

Check with your family and friends as well -- just do your research to make sure you go to someone you can trust.

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