Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a medical system that has been cultivated over the last 2,500 years. Today, in China, TCM is an accepted medical system alongside allopathic or conventional medicine. A hospital in China may have an acupuncture floor, along with other specialty floors such as an oncology floor, where a patient may get acupuncture with their chemotherapy treatment. In the U.S., TCM is gaining acceptance by conventional medical doctors, as well as popularity amongst patients. There is something to be said about a system of medicine that has stood the test of so much time—it must help.
Most people in the U.S. know about TCM because of acupuncture, however this is just one of the four major pillars of the system. TCM is a holistic medicine system that uses Chinese dietetics, therapeutic massage (Tui Na), movement therapy such as qigong and tai chi, Chinese herbal medicines and acupuncture. TCM revolves around the concept of qi or chi, which loosely translates to “life energy” or “vital energy”. Qi courses through a living species via meridians which correspond to specific organs that are responsible for specialized functions. When there is a disruption in the flow of qi, symptoms present.
TCM focuses on the whole person—truly holistic approach. A TCM practitioner will take a patient’s pulse and ask them to stick their tongue out. The pulse is assessed for more than just rate and rhythm, but other factors such as depth, force and location are also taken into consideration when diagnosing a pulse quality. The tongue is analyzed as well, looking at the color, presence of a coat, cracks, scalloped edges and size. These two diagnostic tools help the practitioner diagnose the patient with specific disharmonies. Acupuncture points, as well as herbs, nutrition and unique movement therapies, are chosen based on this diagnosis and applied during a treatment.
Diagnosis in TCM is different than western medicine. As an example, consider headaches. This can be a diagnosis in western medicine, requiring a treatment to reduce the pain. However, in TCM, it is a symptom of an imbalance. One may have headaches due to deficiency of yin, or excess of yang. Or it may be related to kidney or liver organ disharmonies. When these organs are referenced as being out of balance, it does not mean the patient has kidney or liver disease. When TCM treatments are applied to these disharmonies, then the headaches should improve. In fact, very often other symptoms improve too; a complex case of five or more chief complaints may find improvement across all parameters when getting acupuncture. Sleep quality improves, energy improves, digestion normalizes and more.
TCM is often referred to as a theory of medicine because modern science has been unable to measure qi. There have been recent studies showing evidence that the muscle fascia network may be related to the meridians; much of TCM focuses on interacting with the fascia (acupuncture, massage, qigong and tai chi). A Harvard scientist recently found that acupuncture affects the muscle and the fascia similarly to a stretch technique, which helps explain why acupuncture, yoga and physical therapy all reduce pain with similar efficacy.
Acupuncture is the relatively painless insertion of sterilized, single-use, stainless steel needles into specific points in the body. The needles have various lengths and diameters—all extremely small (~0.20mm diameter). There are more than 400 acupuncture points on the human body, often found in depressions, where the muscle fascia planes overlap. These locations serve as access points to qi in the meridian. The acupuncture needles stimulate the qi at the needle site at various depths, usually never more than one centimeter. This can either tonify the qi for that meridian and organ if deficient, or disperse and move the qi in that meridian if it is stuck.
If qi is an energetic principle, and science does not have the proper tools to measure it, it is unfair to discredit it as a therapeutic concept. There are many studies proving the efficacy of acupuncture in treating various conditions, including but not limited to: insomnia, anxiety, low back pain, headaches, osteoarthritic pains, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disease and plantar fasciitis.
Most major insurance companies will cover acupuncture for certain diagnoses. Imagine if acupuncture was combined with the rest of TCM, such as proper nutrition, herbal medicine, movement therapy and therapeutic massage; the results would probably improve even more significantly. One area of medicine that acupuncture is gaining strong support in is fertility and pregnancy. It can help boost fertility, as well as reduce pain associated with pregnancy, swelling and edema, nausea, vomiting, headaches and even turning a breech position.