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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Traditional Chinese Medicine

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a complete medical system that has been used to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses for over 2,000 years. The focus of TCM, like many other alternative therapies, is to maintain balance and prevent illness. What makes TCM unique, however, are some of the basic beliefs that it is rooted in. For example, TCM is based on a belief in yin and yang—defined as opposing energies, such as earth and heaven, winter and summer, and happiness and sadness. When yin and yang are in balance, you feel relaxed and energized, experiencing only occasional highs and lows. Out of balance yin and yang, however, negatively affect your health.

Practitioners also believe that there is a life force or energy in every body, known as qi (pronounced "chee"). In order for yin and yang to be balanced and for the body to be healthy, qi must be balanced and flowing freely. When there's too little or too much qi in one of the body's energy pathways (called meridians), or when the flow of qi is blocked, illness results.

The ultimate goal of TCM treatment is to balance the yin and yang in our lives through promoting the natural flow of qi. To achieve this, TCM practitioners use diet, herbs, acupuncture, acupressure, and physical exercises such as tai chi and qi gong.

How does TCM work?

To understand how TCM works, you need to have a good understanding of qi. According to TCM, qi is one of three forces within our bodies that control the harmony of yin and yang (the other two are moisture and blood). Qi is very important because it is the life force that gives us the ability to move, think, feel, and work. It flows through channels in the body called meridians. Each meridian is connected to one specific organ (or a group of related organs) that governs particular body functions. There are five organ networks in the body:

  • Kidney—the kidney network is responsible for reproduction and growth in the body. Delayed growth, infertility, low back pain, paranoia, fuzzy thinking, weak vision, and despair are all considered problems of the kidney.
  • Heart—the heart network pumps blood through the vessels, maintains the body's spirit, and governs the mind. Anxiety, restless sleep, and heart spasms occur when the heart network is disturbed.
  • Spleen—the spleen network controls food digestion and the ability to think clearly. Indigestion, bloating, fatigue, scattered thinking, and poor concentration are signs of spleen problems.
  • Liver—the liver network is responsible for the storage of blood, flow of qi, and control of temper. Tension in the neck and shoulders, high blood pressure, headaches, cramping, moodiness, and impulsive behavior result from liver problems.
  • Lung—the lung network sets the body's rhythm and allows the body to inhale oxygen. Tightness in the chest, unhappiness, and being prone to colds and flu result from lung problems.

When qi flows undisturbed to each of the organ networks in your body, yin and yang are in balance and you are in good health. When qi is disrupted, you become ill. Therefore, qi is at the center of most TCM therapies. The following therapies are prescribed to encourage the proper flow of qi:

  • Acupuncture—consists of inserting thin stainless steel needles at various points on the body, known as gateways, to unblock or rebalance the flow of qi. The needles stimulate and open meridians to promote the flow of qi.
  • Acupressure—stimulates and opens meridians with manual manipulation rather than the use of needles. Shiatsu, tsubo, and jin shin jyutsu are types of acupressure.
  • Chinese Herbal Medicines—herbs work to provide balance within the organ networks. For example, if the disease is characterized by TCM practitioners as "cold," specific herbs will be used to create warmth. Herbs are categorized into five flavors: pungent, sour, sweet, bitter, and salty.
  • Qi gong—physical therapy that combines movement and meditation, with a central focus on breathing techniques.
  • Tai chi (also known as tai chi chuan)physical therapy that uses movement that is meditative, slow, and graceful to promote the flow of qi throughout the body.

What should I expect on my first visit?

The TCM practitioner will ask you questions about your medical history and conduct a physical exam to look for signs of imbalance. He or she will examine your tongue and face, as well as other parts of your body (from the brightness of your eyes to the color of your nails), and will check six pulses on each of your wrists. The practitioner will also work to determine if any of your organ networks is affected. He or she will then try to correct any imbalances in your body by providing one or more of the previously discussed therapies.

How many treatments will I need?

The duration of your treatment will depend on the nature of your illness, its severity, and how long it has been present. If your TCM treatment is for only one problem, you will likely experience improvement within a month. Acupuncture is scheduled as often as three times a week or as little as twice a month. Some people need only a few sessions while others need sustained care. As symptoms improve, fewer visits will be required.

What is TCM good for?

TCM has been shown to be particularly helpful for allergies, asthma, colds, digestive problems (such as irritable bowel syndrome), emotional imbalances, gynecological problems, headaches, immune system disorders, and stress. Although not an effective remedy for cancer itself, TCM may help with the side effects of cancer treatment.

Are there conditions and illness that should not be treated with TCM?

TCM is not recommended as a treatment for trauma or other serious acute conditions.

How can I find a qualified TCM practitioner?

TCM practitioners are licensed in every state except Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Tennessee. To locate a qualified practitioner in your area, contact either the American Association of Oriental Medicine, on the Web at or by phone at 888-500-7999, or the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, on the Web at or by phone at 703-548-9004.

How much will a treatment cost?

Visits will cost between $40 and $100, depending upon where you live.

Will my medical insurance cover TCM?

More and more insurance providers and HMOs cover all or part of the cost of TCM (in particular, acupuncture treatments), but they may have restrictions on the types of illnesses covered. Check with your insurance company to see what your policy offers.

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