Traditional Chinese Medicine: ancient medicine, modern benefits
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 will have an acupuncture floor along with other conventional floors such as an oncology floor, where a patient may get acupuncture with their chemotherapy treatment. In the United States, 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 time- it must help! There is a growing number of studies that prove the efficacy of TCM and even more patient testimonies that claim its benefits.
Most people in the US know about TCM because of Acupuncture, however this is just one of the 4 major pillars of TCM. TCM is a holistic medicine that uses Chinese dietetics, therapeutic massage (Tui Na), movement therapy such as Qi Gong and Tai Chi, Chinese herbal medicines, and acupuncture. TCM revolves around the concept of Qi or Chi (pronounced ‘chee’), which loosely translates to ‘life energy’ or ‘vital energy’. Qi courses through a living specie 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 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. And it turns out that much of TCM focuses on interacting with the fascia- acupuncture, massage, Qi gong, and tai chi. A Harvard scientist recently found that acupuncture effects the muscle and the fascia similarly to a stretch-technique; which makes sense 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 over 400 acupuncture points on the human body. These points are 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 more significantly. One area of medicine that acupuncture is gaining strong support in is fertility and pregnancy. Not only helping boost fertility, but also reducing pain associated with pregnancy, swelling and edema, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and even turning a breech position.
TCM focuses on the whole person, it is truly holistic medicine. 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 also other factors such as depth, force, and location are 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, consider headaches as an example. 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.
One should give acupuncture a trial to see how it may help them. Sometimes you don’t realize something is suboptimal until you recognize an improvement in quality of life.