An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM is a medical system whose origins go back at least 3,000 years. TCM, as it is practiced today, is a combination of treatments that were developed in China over the ages. Therapies under TCM encompass herbal medicine, acupuncture, and massage. Along with ayurveda, homeopathy, and naturopathy TCO is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine that is practiced all over the world.

TCO stresses harmony between the body and the environment as well as proper regulation of the body's life force referred to as Chi. The fundamental difference between TCO and the allopathic system is that TCO takes a holistic view when diagnosing and treating illnesses. It draws heavily from the philosophies of Taoism, the principles of Yin-Yang, the five elements that make up the human body, its meridians, and other concepts. Yet it would be fair to say that TCO is evolving and modern proponents of the system are trying to incorporate biomedicine and quality evidence into TCO.

The theories behind TCO

The theory of Yin-Yang is amongst the central theories of Chinese philosophy. Yin-Yang represents opposites in the universal scheme of things; for example hot/cold, male/female, light/dark, ascending/descending, still/moving, slow/fast etc. In general Yang represents ascent, heightened activity, light, and other related characteristics whereas Yin represents descent, slow activity, darkness and other related characteristics. Yin-Yang, although in opposition, need to exist in harmony for all entities to exist in harmony within themselves and with one another. Yin and Yang cannot exist independent of one another. With respect to TCO, Yin and Yang come into play regarding the maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium of the processes in the human body. Disease occurs when there is an imbalance between the forces of Yin and Yang in the human body. Excess or deficiency in either element leads to disharmony in the bodily processes and consequently disease.

The theory of five elements covers wood, fire, earth, metal and water and accords their attributes to viscera, organs and tissues of the human body. Mutual promotion and restraint with respect to form, function, and phenomena in the human body result in healthy physiological conditions whereas mutual encroachment and violation causes pathological conditions.

The theory of meridians relates to channels that are routes taken by the body's life-force known in Chinese as chi. The belief in chi is not borne out by anatomical evidence; nevertheless the concept of chi is central to Chinese therapy. Chi routes are essential for the practice of acupuncture, a therapy central to TCM. There are 20 meridians defined of which 12 constitute regular channels while there are 8 channels that are considered extraordinary. The meridians, divided into Yin and Yang groups, are named after biological functions and are supposed to run through the entire body.

Diagnostic techniques in TCM

In keeping with its holistic beliefs regarding illnesses and their cures, TCM holds that localized pathological events can manifest anywhere in the human body. The diagnostic techniques used in TCM include checking the pulse, deductions from the color of the tongue, observation of the face, palpation of the abdomen to check for tenderness, asking questions, judging from the patient's voice, etc. Thus, inspection, auscultation and olfaction, inquiry and palpation can be considered as the four key diagnostic techniques used in TCM. The differentiation of syndromes and subsequent treatment is carried out based on these diagnoses.

Principles of treatment

The clinical aspects of TCM are guided by therapeutic principles such as the principle of Biao and Ben, promotion of Zheng Qi and arresting Xie Qi, and treatment based on changes in the weather as well as the patient's constitution.

The principle of biao and ben are concerned with the primary (ben) and the secondary (biao), for example a disease of the internal organs is ben but its external manifestations are biao. Thus, treatment is based on a disease's etiology and its severity.

The immune power of the body is termed zheng Qi and pathogenic factors are called xie qi. A key principle on which treatment practices are based is the boosting of zheng qi and suppressing xie qi.
The seasons, climate, geographical conditions, and a patient's condition are other factors that influence the mode of treatment. The customs, age, sex, constitution, and hygiene of an individual; the climate  whether hot or cold, etc are important considerations.

Modes of treatment

By far the most popular and well-known treatment method to have come out of TCM is acupuncture. Acupuncture relies heavily on the theory of meridians. Acupuncture involves stimulating points, known as acupoints, on these meridians by means of needles so that the flow of chi and blood is properly channelized. The acupoints are selected based on the ailment and the therapeutic action sought. Acupuncture needles are very thin and fine, their lengths can vary from half an inch to three inches. The needles are inserted at the desired point and left there for around 15 - 30 minutes. The needles can be lifted; thrust, rotated and manipulated by the practitioner to regulate the flow of chi. There is increasing scientific evidence being unearthed that proves the efficacy of acupuncture in certain ailments such as rheumatism and arthritis.

Tui na is a form of acupressure that involves brushing, kneading, rolling, pressing and rubbing specific areas to get the energy flowing in the right directions. It is found to be useful in musculoskeletal conditions as well as conditions of the digestive and respiratory systems. Tui na does not have any side effects usually associated with drug-based treatments. Over the years, it has evolved to accommodate separate techniques for infants, injured adults, women, the aged and the infirm.

Herbal medicine is used extensively in TCM and even today there are around 600 herbs used extensively to prepare concoctions, decoctions, powders, tablets, etc. The herbs are classified based on their taste and temperature characteristics. Thus, the herbs can be hot, warm, cold, and neutral while their tastes can range from sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty.

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An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine