Traditional Chinese Medicine – an Ancient and yet Modern Healing System

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China and has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use herbal medicines and various mind and body practices, such as acupuncture, qi gong (or chi kung) or tai chi, to treat or prevent health problems. In the Western society this is mainly used as a complementary health approach.

So, why does ancient knowledge still survive nowadays and seems to break physical and cultural frontiers?  What makes this approach so interesting in the healing process point of view?

TCM encompasses many different practices, including acupuncture, moxibustion (burning an herb above the skin to apply heat to acupuncture points), Chinese herbal medicine, tui na (Chinese therapeutic massage), dietary therapy, and tai chi and qi gong (practices that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus). TCM is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism and dates back more than 2,500 years. Traditional systems of medicine also exist in other East and South Asian countries, including Japan (where the traditional herbal medicine is called Kampo), Thailand, Korea, etc. Some of these systems have been influenced by TCM and are similar to it in some ways, but each has developed distinctive features of its own.


Fundamental Concepts

Two concepts that are unique and fundamental to Chinese medicine are Qi (usually translated as “vital energy”) and yin and yang (the harmony of all the opposite elements and forces that make up existence). These two concepts form what we might call the “roots” of Chinese medicine.
Springing from these roots are the basic principles and theories about the dynamics of Qi and yin and yang, which form the “stems” of Chinese medicine. And resting on these principles is the rest of TCM theory and application, such as the causes of patterns of disharmony, which form the “branches.” More on this, give a look to The Journal of Chinese Medicine website.

But what is qi?

And yin and yang?

The Chinese 5 Elements

The Five Elements, or Five Phases, are aspects of Qi. These are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. In the poetic language of the Five Elements, health is a harmonious balance of all the elements. The Qi of the elements waxes and wanes in daily and seasonal cycles. Each one of us is a unique and characteristic blend of the influences of all the elements. I am sure this concept is not news to you and I believe it is quite clear that we, as all in nature, are a complex gathering of parts:

Ok, now that you are a bit more clear on these basic concepts, let´s move to “How It Works”

Because the dynamics of yin and yang are always shifting and changing in the world around us, we must continuously respond to these changes in order to maintain the harmony of yin and yang in our lives and so maintain our health and wellbeing. If we do not make an appropriate response to change, then the harmony of yin and yang in our life may tilt into a pattern of disharmony and subsequently into illness, disease and suffering.

The potential causes of disharmony fall into two general categories: deficiency and excess.  The TCM practitioner assesses the situation presented by the patient in its entire context, then completes a diagnostic process called “pattern differentiation.”

  • Initially the patient describes what he or she is experiencing, the practitioner observes the patient – feels the pulse, assesses muscle tone, physical characteristics and areas of pain as needed.
  • The diagnostic process uses information gathered from the intake along with one or more of the TCM “maps” (or perspectives on the dynamics of Qi and yin and yang) that help place the patient’s concern within the larger context of his or her life. This allows the TCM practitioner to identify the pattern of disharmony in the patient’s life that is responsible for the discomfort.

Once the practitioner has identified the pattern of disharmony, he or she can begin to work with the patient in creating and implementing a strategy to resolve the disharmony and restore harmony to the patients’ life: could be through acupuncturemoxibustiondiet changes, teaching specific exercises (as qi gong), herbal remedies, etc. The aim is good health, a quiet mind, and a contented, harmonious presence in the world.

The Key Principles – I love this because it is so true…

  1. Your body is an integrated whole. Each and every structure in your body is an integral and necessary part of the whole. Along with your mind, emotions, and spirit, your physical body structures form a miraculously complex, interrelated system that is powered by life force, or energy.
  2. You are completely connected to nature.Changes in nature are always reflected in your body. TCM factors in the particular season, geographical location, time of day, as well as your age, genetics, and the condition of your body when looking at your health issues.
  3. You were born with a natural self-healing ability. Your body is a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm. Think about it: nature has a regenerative capacity, and so do you. Sometimes, this ability may appear to be lost or difficult to access. In most cases, it is never completely gone.
  4. Prevention is the best cure. Do you know your body is continually revealing signs about the state of your health? Let’s face it, it’s common to ignore these signs or symptoms until something more complicated arises. TCM teaches you how to interpret what your body is telling you.


So, answering to our initial questions:

Rigorous scientific evidence of its effectiveness is limited, mainly is through observation of subsiding symptoms and/or diseases, anecdotal evidence or by a few studies on specific techniques; nevertheless it is still widespread in the WEST (where is most controversial) and even some public hospitals are embracing some of the techniques to help patients with chronic pain or other illnesses. TCM has a very deep understanding on the human ability to live in harmony and heal itself, using it´s own potential to mimic nature´s ways to self-regulate and find balance – it is complex, I am not going to lie, but this concept is universal if you think about it; we see nowadays society is struggling to find balance and true connection, a clear translation of the raising numbers of illnesses (disharmonies), burden on the health systems and the incomplete approach of the same health systems in a lot of chronic conditions. This makes people seek for holistic perceptions of the healing process – some form of therapy or medicine that can understand human´s complexity and present better alternatives to achieve better health.

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