What to Know About Traditional Chinese Medicine

Dried Chinese herbs
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Traditional Chinese medicine is a healing approach that originated in China thousands of years ago. Often referred to as "TCM," practitioners use herbs, diet, acupuncture, cupping, and qi gong to prevent or treat health problems. Although it is still practiced in many of China's medical facilities alongside modern medicine, in the United States, traditional Chinese medicine is considered a form of alternative medicine.

What Makes the TCM Approach Unique?

Rooted in a philosophy known as Taoism, traditional Chinese medicine is based on the theory that all of the body's organs mutually support each other. Therefore, in order to be healthy, an individual's organs (and their functions) must be in balance. This balance is attained, in part, by harmonizing yin and yang, two opposing but complementary energies thought to affect all life.

Another theory in traditional Chinese medicine is that vital energy (called "qi" or "chi") flows throughout the body via certain pathways (or "meridians"). According to this theory, disease and other emotional, mental, and physical health problems develop when the flow of qi is blocked, weak, or excessive. Restoring the flow of qi is considered essential to balancing the yin and yang and, in turn, achieving wellness.

What Happens When You Visit a TCM Practitioner?

A TCM practitioner would assess your overall health by taking a health history, doing a tongue assessment, pulse assessment, and a physical exam, identifying any Imbalances or qi blockages.

If the practitioner identifies an imbalance in one of TCM's organ systems, it doesn't necessarily mean that the person has a physical disease in that organ.

The liver, for instance, helps to regulate the smooth flow of qi. If a person has "liver qi stagnation", the energy is said to be blocked, resulting in irritability, anger, or depression, a bitter taste in the mouth, indigestion, and a pulse that practitioners describe as "wiry".

A "kidney yin deficiency", on the other hand, is associated with a dry mouth, hot flushes in the afternoon or evening, tinnitus, and forgetfulness. The tongue is usually reddish in color with little or no tongue coating. Practitioners describe the pulse as "floating".

Why Do People Use Traditional Chinese Medicine?

To date, Western scientists have not extensively studied the use of traditional Chinese medicine in treatment of specific health conditions. However, traditional Chinese medicine is used to address the following conditions:

  • Allergies
  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Back pain
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Eczema, hives, acne, psoriasis, and other skin conditions
  • Fertility
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Menopause symptoms
  • Obesity
  • Parkinson's disease

Although standard treatment in modern medicine is based on the diagnosis, in TCM, the treatment would depend on the underlying imbalance. For example, a person with insomnia may have difficulty sleeping because of an imbalance such as a kidney yin deficiency, spleen qi deficiency, or blood deficiency.

What are the Treatment Methods Used in TCM?

There are many different therapeutic methods used in traditional Chinese medicine, the most popular being acupuncture. Since traditional Chinese medicine emphasizes individualized treatment, healing methods vary widely from patient to patient. These methods often include:

  • Acupuncture: Though acupuncture's roots lie in TCM, it is used as a western treatment for a variety of health concerns.
  • Acupressure: Finger pressure is applied over acupuncture points and meridians.
  • Cupping therapy
  • Diet and nutrition: Foods are thought to have warming/cooling properties and are said to have specific healing properties.
  • Herbal medicine: Herbs and herbal tea may be suggested. 
  • Moxibustion: A practice that involves burning an herb near the skin to warm the area over acupuncture points.
  • Tuina: a type of bodywork that combines massage and acupressure.
  • Exercises such as tai chi and qi gong

Herbs Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Rather than prescribing specific herbs, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine typically combine a number of different herbs in formulas selected depending on the patient's individual needs. These formulas may be given as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.

Herbs commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine include:

While consumers face risks when purchasing any dietary supplement (such as contamination with other substances) due to a lack of regulation, these risks may be of greater magnitude with herbal products that have been manufactured abroad, particularly those containing a variety of herbs.

Bottom Line

For some people, TCM may provide a unique perspective into lifestyle factors that may influence your health. There have been few high-quality clinical trials showing that TCM can treat disease, so it's important not to self-treat or use it in place of standard care. If you're considering trying it, seek a qualified practitioner and consult your doctor to weight the pros and cons of the therapy and discuss whether it's appropriate for you.


National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction". NCCAM Publication No. D428. March 2009.

University of Maryland Medical Center. "Traditional Chinese medicine".

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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