What is involved in traditional Chinese medicine?

More than 5,000 years in the making, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is now practiced in every corner of the globe. It offers an alternative or compliment to western medicine. Whilst most think of traditional Chinese medicine as either herbal remedies or acupuncture, there is also an ancient ideology that underpins every TCM procedure and decision. Despite the widespread practicing of TCM, only a few are familiar with the fundamentals.

Concepts of traditional Chinese medicine

The key components of Chinese medicine ideology were developed many millennia past in an attempt to understand and explain the human body. The human being is viewed not as a static object but as a collection of dependant and interacting systems. Each action of the body is assigned characteristics and has direct effect on the characteristics of each other system. Traditional Chinese medicine is based upon three key principles; qi, yin and yang, and the five elements. Each component affects the other two and balance and fluidity of all three is essential for health.

Qi. Qi is believe to flow through the body systems and provide nourishment. There are five cardinal functions of Qi; circulation, warming, defence, containment and transformation of food and drink. In modern western medicine, Qi almost directly relates to the blood and other extracellular fluid. Qi is believed to flow through and between the organs with a flow stagnation the result of or the cause of an illness.  The aim of TCM is ensure proper Qi flow throughout the body.

Yin and yang. A key component of TCM is the concept of yin and yang. Popularised in the alternative movement, the balance of yin and yang is familiar within popular culture. In TCM, achieving a balance between these two opposing elements is an absolute requirement to obtain a healthy state. In the human, yang symptoms include; hyper-activeness, sweating, aggression, thirst, and difficulty putting on weight. Whilst yin covers the opposing symptoms such as water retention, lethargy, difficulty losing weight, pale and cold extremities. As you can see, the two group completely oppose each other and a balance between the two would enable health. Every TCM practice attempts to return the being back to a balance between yin and yang.

Five phase theory. The final concept to underpin TCM is the balance of the five key elements; water, earth, fire, metal and wood. This concept is slightly more abstract with each element associated with a set of organs, and those organs being associated with a yin or yang property. The idea is to balance all five elements and the yin and yang organ within them.

Traditional Chinese medicine in modern society

Although the concepts of TCM were developed millennia ago and the modern techniques have failed to elucidate the links proposed, TCM still has relevance in modern health care. The concepts of qi and the five phase have been difficult to prove but the idea of a yin/yang balance is one that is pertinent to modern health care. A perfect example is thyroid conditions. Hyperthyroidism (yang-like) results in overactive metabolism, weight loss, and heat intolerance whilst hypothyroidism (yin-like) is the complete opposite. The key to treatment of a thyroid condition is finding a balance between the two. The difference between TCM and western medicine is how the issue is addressed.

Traditional Chinese medicine in practice

Western medicine traditionally has been very good at compartmentalising conditions and symptoms, whereas TCM takes a more holistic approach. Rather than attempting to treat the underlying molecular or physical problem, TCM seeks to assess and treat the symptoms. By improving the symptoms, TCM helps the body restore a balance between the yin and yang components. TCM attempts to enable the body to heal itself. Using the thyroid as an example again, instead of the western approach of replacing thyroid hormone or surgically removing the thyroid,  TCM tries to treat the symptoms and allow the body to restore normal levels.

A number of techniques are employed by TCM practitioners to attempt to restore the balance. Acupuncture, for example, is used to cease the stagnation of the Qi to enable flow of nourishment to every organ. Acupuncture has been shown to be more effective than placebo for some chronic pain related ailments, but it has yet to been shown histologically or physiologically to act through any such Qi or meridian. The method of acupuncture effectiveness has yet to be elucidated by western medicine. TCM practitioners use other methods such as herbal remedies or massage to manipulate the body. Both of these attempt to shift the internal balance and restore health.

The short comings of traditional Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine has been shown to be helpful in managing some chronic pain, however there are a wide number of medical areas where it falls down. Western medicine excels in treating ailments relating to physical or molecular problems. A faulty heart, for example, is very difficult to remedy with herbs or acupuncture but requires physical replacement of a valve or coronary artery. As TCM does not look at the human being as a static object, there is no concept of extensive anatomy as it is studied in western medical education. Therefore, TCM struggles with illnesses that are caused by a physical abnormality. Almost every acute setting is one that requires western practices to remedy.

Conclusion

Developed many millennia ago, traditional Chinese medicine was once the leading medical rationale known to mankind. The concepts and techniques still persevere into the 21st century. However, the rapid development of western medicine over the last two centuries have shown many short comings in TCM. In the acute setting, TCM’s questionable efficacy elicits a far too greater risk to be relied upon. However, in the chronic settings where the risks are greatly reduced TCM is able to assist in improving health status and most importantly restoring balance.