The Who, What, Where, When and Sometimes, Why.

Traditional Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine

What is it?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient system of medicine that uses a wide variety of methods for diagnosing and treating many different medical conditions.

TCM began over 2000 years ago. Today, it still plays an important role in the healthcare system in China. Over half of the Chinese population still uses TCM herbal preparations. Most Chinese hospitals have pharmacies that provide both modern conventional medications and TCM herbal preparations.

TCM is now one of the fastest growing forms of alternative medicine in the West. However, many practitioners of TCM are not legally recognized or licensed in North America. In the US, some states recognize practitioners called “licensed acupuncturists.” These practitioners often have training in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. In other states, a Certificate in Acupuncture is recognized. Some people who practice TCM have a “Doctor of Oriental Medicine” degree (OMD or DOM), though standards for this degree are not uniform. These degrees reflect training, not licensure.

A major problem facing TCM herbal use is product quality. There are often issues with misidentification of herbal species, which can lead to substitution of potentially poisonous plants. In several cases, the herb guang fang ji was substituted for han fang ji. This substitution resulted in over 100 reported cases of kidney damage because guang fang ji contains a chemical that can poison the kidneys.

Adulteration and contamination is another serious problem facing TCM herbal medicines. In several instances, high levels of heavy metals including lead, arsenic, and mercury have been found as contaminants. Many other products have been found to contain prescription medications. One notable example of this is PC SPES. Clinical trials found this herbal formulation might be effective against prostate cancer. But laboratory analysis eventually found that the PC SPES was contaminated with the prescription drug warfarin.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.

The effectiveness ratings for TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE are as follows:

Insufficient Evidence to Rate Effectiveness for…

  • Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient system of medicine that uses a variety of treatments including herbs and specific combinations of herbal ingredients. See specific therapies for effectiveness information.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) began over 2000 years ago. At that time there was no scientific concept of disease or medications in terms that can be related to our modern understanding of medicine. Therefore, the principles of TCM were formed based more on philosophy than on science. In order to understand the key principles of TCM, it is important to know the meaning of terms that are important to TCM.

Acupuncture. Originated in China and is now commonly used throughout Eastern countries. Needles are inserted into over 350 key points along “meridians” in the body. Stimulating these points through a needle or pressure (e.g., acupressure) is thought to stimulate the body to correct energy flow and balance.

Herbs and herbal combinations. Like other TCM therapies, herbals are used to correct energy flow and balance. Herbs are described as having four qualities:
Action. Herbs are often described based on their primary action such as “tonic,” strengthener, or astringent.
Affinity. Herbs can be described based on which organ system they have an affinity or “natural liking” for.
Nature. The nature of an herb usually describes whether it has “cooling” or “heating” effects. An herb’s nature might also be described as “energizing” or “relaxing.”
Taste. Herbs can have different effects based on tastes such as sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, salty, or bland. Bitter herbs such as goldenseal are often described as having a drying effect and are used for upper respiratory tract infections.

Meridian. There are 12 meridians forming a continuous pathway throughout the body. Qi circulates through the body on these meridians.

Pulse diagnosis. This is an important diagnostic tool used in TCM, often in conjunction with tongue diagnosis. TCM practitioners take the pulse under each wrist and in three different positions. The pulses are thought to provide information about the internal organs.

Qi. This term, pronounced “chee,” refers to the total energy of the body.

Qi Gong. This is an exercise either through physical movements or meditation used to stimulate qi and maintain energy flow and balance.

Tongue diagnosis. The appearance of the tongue is used to evaluate possible illness. Cues such as tongue moistness, coloring, or coating suggest certain conditions.

Yin and yang. In China, yin and yang are two forces that control the universe. Virtually, all medical problems are considered to be due to imbalances in one of these forces. Yin is the feminine side of nature and includes tranquility, darkness, cold, wetness, and depth. Yang is masculine and represents light, heat, activity, dryness, and height. Yin and yang are not the same as good and bad. Instead they are considered forces that work together to complete each other. Chinese therapies intend to correct imbalances of these forces to cure disease.

In TCM, most herbs are taken as a fixed formula or a fixed combination of several herbs. Each individual herb is thought to address a particular imbalance in an ill person. Specific formulations are prescribed based on TCM-diagnosed imbalances. In each herbal formula there is usually a main ingredient combined with several other supportive ingredients.

Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient system of medicine that uses a variety of treatments including herbs and specific combinations of herbal ingredients. Some of these are safe while others may not be. See specific therapies for safety information.

It is not known if this treatment interacts with any medicines.

Before using this treatment, talk with your health professional if you take any medications.

There are no known interactions with herbs and supplements.

There are no known interactions with foods.

The appropriate or safe use of Traditional Chinese medicine depends on several factors such as the condition being treated or the person administering the treatment. Be sure to seek and follow relevant directions from your physician or other healthcare professional before using this treatment.

Chinese Medicine, MCT, Médecine Chinoise Traditionnelle, Medicina China Tradicional, Médecine Orientale, MTC, Médecine Traditionnelle Chinoise, Oriental Medicine, Remède Traditionnel Chinois, TAM, TCM, Traditional Asian Medicine.


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For the latest comprehensive data on this and every other natural medicine, health professionals should consult the Professional Version of the Natural Medicines. It is fully referenced and updated daily.

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