The Basics: The yin-yang symbol illustrates two opposing, yet complementary forces, representing the harmony of perfect balance. This equilibrium is the goal of practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), an alternative system of medicine that views a healthy body as a body in balance.
TCM combines many treatments, including acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, diet therapy, Chinese massage or Tui Na, moxibustion (burning of herbs, such as mugwort, on or near the skin), and cupping to balance the body and restore the flow of qi, your vital life energy.
TCM teaches that qi flows just under the surface of the body and through organs along a series of meridians. When qi is blocked, for example, the flow can be restored by using acupuncture to stimulate specific meridian points.
A consultation with a TCM practitioner may feel similar to a visit with an Western doctor, but it’s different in theory, says Jill Blakeaway, licensed acupuncturist, board certified herbalist, and former professor of traditional Asian medicine. “[TCM practitioners] don’t just ask about a chief complaint, because in TCM no symptom really makes sense except in the context of the whole,” Blakeway explains.
Where Western medicine tends to focus on the present symptoms, a TCM diagnosis involves both a root and a branch—the branch being the symptoms and the root being the fundamental cause, according to Blakeway. The course of treatment is likely to be a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, in the form of granules, tinctures, pills or whole herbs brewed as tea to bring the body back into balance.
For chronic treatments, Blakeway estimates that one month of TCM treatment is needed for every year of past suffering with the condition. For pain-related problems, relief may be instant with acupuncture treatment. Once the body heals and returns to balance, patients stop taking Chinese herbs.
Scientific Support: Among TCM’s many therapies, acupuncture is the most thoroughly documented with scientific research. Many studies show acupuncture to be an effective treatment for pain management and headaches. Other studies involve herbs prescribed in TCM, like the Chinese herb berberine, which was found to treat diabetes and obesity in a 2006 study.
TCM herbal therapy in general was found to be a beneficial treatment for asthma in a 2009 study that also suggested its potential to be an effective treatment for food allergies. And a 2010 review of scientific studies found promise in TCM therapies as treatments for fibromyalgia.
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