Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient medical practice that is over 2,000 years old. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use the following eight principles (grouped into pairs) to guide their work:

  • The body consists of yin and yang energies that need to be properly balanced.
  • Cold and heat are two features of disease. Understanding the temperature of the disease helps to treat it.
  • Conditions either affect the exterior (muscles, skin, and meridians) or interior (disease inside the body).
  • Understanding a body’s deficiency and excess (too much or not enough of something) can help diagnose and design treatment.

Qi (pronounced chee and sometimes called chi) is the energy in the body that flows through meridians, or pathways, in the body. When qi is blocked or the body is otherwise out of balance in any of the above principles, illness and disease can occur.

Treatments in traditional Chinese medicine focus on restoring the balance in the body and freeing up the energy pathways. Some traditional treatments include:

  • Herbs: Taken in tea, pill form, or as a tincture, traditional Chinese medicine focuses on detoxifying the liver and other internal organs that deal with processing waste
  • Tui na: This traditional Chinese massage uses martial arts and Taoist principles in combination with the other forms of Chinese medicine
  • Moxibustion: This technique involves holding burning herbs close to the skin
  • Acupressure: This is the process of applying and releasing pressure to certain points in the body to help release blockages and get stagnant energy flowing
  • Gua sha: This technique uses a spoon or other round object and scrapes the skin of the back to increase microcirculation and get stagnant qi flowing
  • Exercise and breathing: Tai chi and Qi gong are two types of flowing exercises that incorporate breathing with movements designed to get energy flowing freely throughout the body
  • Dietary approaches: Traditional Chinese medical diets eliminate all processed foods and focus on cleansing and purifying foods that help build energy and clear the body of toxins

Perhaps the most well-known and commonly used treatment in traditional Chinese medicine is acupuncture. Acupuncture uses hair-thin needles inserted into specific points in the body to stimulate particular meridians that may be blocked. Traditional Chinese medical doctors measure various pulses before and after treatment to see if the treatment was effective, retreating as necessary or moving to a different insertion point.

While acupuncture in traditional Chinese medicine focuses mainly on opening up the energy channels in the body, medical acupuncture emphasizes modern knowledge of disease pathology, biology, and physiology to guide the treatment. In the U.S., acupuncture is used as a complementary therapy along with more western approaches, whereas practitioners and patients of traditional Chinese medicine may rely solely on acupuncture and other traditional approaches as first-line treatments.

Traditional Chinese medical doctors have practiced acupuncture for years, using their observations and understanding of their patients as proof of its efficacy. In the west, researchers are putting together a strong case for the validity of acupuncture as a first-line treatment for various conditions. A recent study out of Georgetown University Medical Center found that acupuncture accesses and impacts the same pathways in rats that are targeted by pain-relieving drugs in humans.

Simply put, acupuncture may be just as effective as prescription medication when it comes to pain relief.

The study’s senior investigator, Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, CRNA, LAc, associate professor in the department of nursing and the department of pharmacology and physiology at GUMC, outlined the finding and highlighted next steps, saying:

“The benefits of acupuncture are well known by those who use it, but such proof is anecdotal. This research, the culmination of a number of studies, demonstrates how acupuncture might work in the human body to reduce stress and pain, and, potentially, depression. We have now found a potential mechanism, and at this point in our research, we need to test human participants in a blinded, placebo controlled clinical study…”

This study can be added to the growing body of research showing acupuncture’s effectiveness as a treatment for various pain and mood conditions. While many other traditional Chinese medical treatments do not have such a solid research basis behind them, the effectiveness of acupuncture may cause many to take another look.

Acupuncture is just one part of the long tradition of Chinese medicine.

Combined with other traditional Chinese medicine techniques, acupuncture may be just the beginning to the development of new approaches in western medicine that are first-line instead of complementary.

As with all medical approaches, finding a qualified, experienced Chinese medical doctor is key. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) is the best place to start your search. They have strict licensing standards and stay up-to-date on research and new developments involving regulations regarding many different alternative medical practices.

An initial exam in traditional Chinese medicine is a bit different from a western medical exam. A Chinese medical doctor takes a thorough medical history, just like a medical doctor, and will also complete a physical exam. Do not be surprised, however, when part of the exam also includes listening to the tone and strength of a patient’s voice, smelling their breath, examining their tongue, or smelling bodily excretions. Observation of a person’s general demeanor and body language may also be a part of the exam. Ask questions if you are unsure or uncomfortable with any part of the initial exam. As with western doctors, you are free to say no to any part of the exam or treatment that makes you uncomfortable, and you can also request a second opinion.

Insurance companies may pay for acupuncture but not for other types of traditional Chinese medicine, so it’s important to check that first if money is tight. A referral from your regular doctor may convince insurers to pay at least part of the treatment.

Have you ever tried acupuncture? What was the result?


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