Traditional Chinese Medicine originated in China more than 5,000 years ago. Rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism, it evolved over thousands of years to encompass many different practices. Today, TCM is practiced side by side with Western medicine in many of China’s hospitals and clinics.
In the United States, TCM is considered part of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 3.1 million U.S. adults used acupuncture the previous year, and approximately 17 percent of adults regularly use natural products, including herbs.
TCM’s unique view of the human body is different from Western medicine and based on the ancient Chinese perception of humans as microcosms of the larger universe, related with nature and subject to its forces. The human body is regarded as a holistic being in which the various organs, tissues and other parts have distinct functions but are all interdependent.
Yin/yang theory, the concept of two opposing yet complementary forces that shape the world and all life, is central to TCM. In the TCM view, a vital energy or life force called Qi circulates through a system of pathways called meridians. Health is considered an ongoing process of maintaining harmony in the circulation of Qi.
TCM uses eight principles to analyze symptoms and categorize conditions: cold/heat, interior/exterior, excess/deficiency and yin/yang. TCM also uses five elements — fire, earth, metal, water and wood — to explain how the body works. These elements correspond to particular organ systems.
Practitioners traditionally use four methods to evaluate a patient’s condition: observing (especially the tongue), hearing/smelling, asking/interviewing and touching/palpating (especially the pulse). TCM emphasizes individualized treatment and a variety of therapies to promote health and treat disease, with Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture the most common. Other therapies include Chinese massage; mind-body therapies such as qi gong and tai chi; dietary therapy; and cupping, the application of heated cups to the skin to create a slight suction.
Chinese herbal medicine relies on the materia medica, a pharmacological reference which contains hundreds of medicinal substances (primarily plants but also minerals and animal products) classified by their perceived action in the body. Different parts of plants such as leaves, roots, stems, flowers and seeds are utilized. Herbs are combined in formulas and given as teas, capsules, tinctures or powders.
Acupuncture is the insertion of thin metal needles through the skin at specific points on the body to remove blockages in the flow of Qi. Moxibustion, or burning moxa, a cone or stick of dried mugwort, on or near the skin, is sometimes used in conjunction with acupuncture. Acupuncture is considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles.
Most states license acupuncture but vary in their inclusion of other TCM components in the license. The federally recognized Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine accredits schools that teach acupuncture and TCM. About one-third 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.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations for dietary supplements (including manufactured herbal products) are less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Some Chinese herbal treatments may be safe, but others may not. There have been reports of products being contaminated with drugs, toxins or heavy metals or not containing the listed ingredients. Some herbs are very powerful, can interact with drugs and may have serious side effects. The Chinese herb ma huang (ephedra) has been linked to serious health complications including heart attack and stroke. In 2004, the FDA banned the sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements used for weight loss and performance enhancement, but the ban does not apply to TCM remedies or herbal teas.
In spite of the widespread use of TCM, scientific evidence of its effectiveness is limited. TCM’s complexity and underlying fundamentals present challenges for researchers. Most studies focused on acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in treating back pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, depression and osteoarthritis. Chinese herbal medicine is often effective in treating cancer, heart disease, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.
Future research studies and clinical trials are needed to learn how TCM works and assess its effectiveness, safety and cost. Recent research-supported studies are investigating the use of TCM for endometriosis-related pelvic pain, irritable bowel syndrome and temporomandibular disorders, and the use of Chinese herbal medicines for the treatment of food allergies and osteoarthritis of the knee.
If you choose TCM:
- Read published studies on TCM for your specific health condition.
- Use herbal remedies under the supervision of a medical professional trained in their use.
- Ask about the training, qualifications and licensure of the TCM practitioner. n If you are pregnant or nursing, consult your physician first.
- Consult a pediatrician before using TCM for a child.
- Tell all your physicians about alternative practices you use.
- Before elective surgery, inform your anesthesiologist and surgeon of herbal medicines you use.
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