What is Chinese medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a system of medicine that has been used for
thousands of years. TCM is founded on the belief that Qi, or the vital life force,
flows through the body and, when balanced, supports health and vitality. An imbalance
in Qi will result in disease and illness. This imbalance is often thought to be caused
when Yin and Yang, the two forces that make up Qi, are not in balance based on the
needs of the body, mind, and spirit.
The ancient Chinese believed that humans were smaller forms of the larger universe,
linked strongly to nature and its forces. Balance in a person's life says whether
a person feels well or develops disease. Keeping this balance is a key concept of
TCM. When a person feels unwell, TCM providers use treatments to restore the Qi balance,
focusing in on the underlying energies of Yin and Yang. Treatments will vary for each
With TCM, it is believed that to regain balance, you must reach a balance. This balance
must be between your internal body organs and the external elements of earth, fire,
water, wood, and metal.
Treatment to regain balance may include:
Burning herbal leaves on or near the body (moxibustion)
Using warmed glass jars to create suction on certain body points (cupping)
Movement and focus exercises (such as tai chi)
Lifestyle approaches that support balancing the person's Qi, such as nutrition, sleep,
and stress reduction
Acupuncture is a part of TCM. Over the past decades, it has made its way into Western
medicine. It's been studied the most of all the alternative therapies. Herbal treatments
may be used in TCM. These herbs can act as medicines and can be very effective. But
it's important to work closely with a trained TCM provider. Some of these herbs may
also have serious side effects and may interact with other medicines. For example,
ephedra is a Chinese herb. It is used in dietary supplements for weight loss and performance
enhancement. In 2004, the FDA banned the sale of dietary supplements with ephedra.
It also banned the sale of plants with ephedra group alkaloids. The FDA did this because
of complications such as heart attack and stroke. But this ban does not apply to certain
herbal products made under TCM guidelines and intended only for short-term use. It
also does not apply to over-the-counter and prescription medicines or to herbal teas.
If you are thinking of using TCM, a certified provider is your safest choice. The
federally recognized Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
(ACAOM) accredits schools that teach acupuncture and TCM. Many of the states that
license acupuncture require graduation from an ACAOM-accredited school. The National
Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine offers separate certification
programs in acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and Oriental bodywork.
TCM should not be used as a replacement for conventional treatment, especially for
serious conditions. But it may be helpful when used as complementary therapy. Some
TCM herbal medicines can interfere or be toxic when used with Western medicines. Tell
your healthcare provider if you are using TCM. This will give your providers a full
picture of your health. And it will help ensure safe, effective, coordinated care.