What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

TCM, or traditional Chinese medicine, has been in the headlines since the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine to researcher Youyou Tu for her discovery of the malaria drug Artemisinin from Artemisia annua described in ancient Chinese literature.1

The Nobel prize award signals long-deserved global acceptance of TCM, which is beginning to take a place alongside orthodox medicine as a viable and life-saving medical modality.

While the word “traditional” (as opposed to “alternative”) is sometimes used to designate modern orthodox medicine, with respect to Chinese medicine it refers to millennia-old practices that include diagnosis, the prescription of herbs, minerals or animal-derived substances, acupuncture, exercises such a Tai chi and qigong, food therapy and more.

TCM is based on the belief that the body is a microcosm of the universe, which life energy (chi) flows through the body’s meridians, and that disease results from disharmony between yin and yang. In contrast with Ayurvedic medicine’s three doshas or types, and the Western concept of the four humors, Chinese Medicine posits five elements: earth, wood, metal, water and fire. These elements are symbols of human life stages and bodily functions.

Traditional Approach in a Modern World

Today, TCM doctors utilize ancient as well as modern practices. Diagnosis may be provided by taking several pulses, inspection of the tongue and other methods that differ from those of western medicine.

Traditional Chinese medicines listed in the Chinese Materia Medica include plant seeds, flowers, stems, leaves and roots, dispensed as capsules, liquid extracts, teas, granules or powder.2 Some of these have made their way into nutritional supplements made in the United States, due to peer-reviewed findings that have validated their contribution toward the prevention or treatment of various conditions. A few of the more popular of these include white peony root, royal jelly, reishi mushroom, Gastrodia elata, Huperzine A, icariin (from Epimedium sagittatum), and mulberry leaf.3-7


Acupuncture, which involves the insertion of needles over specific points, improves the flow of chi along the body’s meridians, according to TCM. Electroacupuncture or acupressure, involving the application of pressure to an acupuncture point, are used by some practitioners in place of needles. Acupuncture is used to treat any ailment and to relieve pain. In China, acupuncture is sometimes utilized during surgery in lieu of anesthesia. A recent evidence review of complementary and integrative therapies published in American Family Physician gave an “A” rating to the evidence in favor of acupuncture as first line treatment for chronic lower back pain, a condition that affects a significant percentage of the American population.8

A number of meta-analyses have added evidence to the benefit of acupuncture in various conditions. Among women with polycystic ovarian syndrome and undergoing in vitro fertilization or intracytoplasmic sperm injection, acupuncture was found to increase clinical pregnancy rate and ongoing pregnancy rate while lowering the incidence of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome and adverse events.9

Other meta-analyses have concluded effectiveness for the use of acupuncture to improve clinical pregnancy rate among women undergoing in vitro fertilization, to reduce alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms, for chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome, to improve physical function in those with chronic arthritis of the knee, in vascular cognitive impairment, to help prevent episodic migraine, to treat tension headache, in the management of postoperative pain, for insomnia, to reduce obstructive sleep apnea, for gastrointestinal upset, for symptom management in palliative cancer care, to stimulate the growth of new neurons following ischemic stroke, and more.10-22


Cupping, which creates a vacuum on the skin, and moxibustion, which involves burning a small amount of the herb mugwort over a specific acupuncture point or on a needle inserted into an acupuncture point, are also used to stimulate the flow of chi. Although these practices have been the subject of research, there is less evidence available in support of their use in comparison with needle acupuncture.

Tai Chi

Tai chi is both a martial art and a form of exercise engaged in to enhance health, relieve pain and improve relaxation. As a gentle form of exercise, it has gained popularity in the United States, particularly among older individuals. A recent study concluded that it may help reduce the fall rate of older individuals who have a history of falling.23


Qigong also involves slow, coordinated movements, combined with rhythmic breathing and meditation. Like acupuncture, it seeks to balance chi. There are an estimated 56 forms of qigong currently in practice.


Traditional Chinese Medicine food therapy involves nutritional and functional aspects of food to treat illnesses.24 Its principles include light eating, balancing food’s hot and cold nature, harmony of the five flavors, and consistency between intake and different health conditions.

The Bottom Line

“Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a holistic approach to health that attempts to bring the body, mind and spirit into harmony,” write E. Chan and colleagues in Current Opinion in Drug Discovery and Development. “An integration of the traditional Chinese and Western systems of medicine has begun in multiple medical centers internationally, and there is increasing evidence that several herbs and combinations of herbs used in TCM impart important pharmacological effects . . . Improvements in the knowledge of the molecular targets and metabolic pathways, as well as of the synergistic and inhibitory effects associated with important phytochemicals from herbs and herbal formulations, will lead to the development of rational approaches for the safe combination of healthcare systems from different cultures.”25

Traditional Chinese medicine can be used alone or combined with other modalities, including Western medicine. Ask your health care provider about potential interactions between any Chinese medications and pharmaceuticals you have been prescribed.

If you choose to try acupuncture for any ailment or for general health, make certain that your acupuncturist is licensed, and that sterile, disposable needles are used. Most states require national board certification for the practice of Oriental medicine, which is offered by the Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).


  1. Tu Y et al. Angew Chem Int Ed Engl. 2016 Aug 22;55(35):10210-26.
  2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm Accessed 2017 Jan 18.
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  4. Chen WY et al. Bioorg Med Chem. 2010 Dec 15;18(24):8583-91.
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  10. Qian Y et al. Arch Gynecol Obstet. 2016 Dec 19.
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  15. Linde K et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Jun 28;(6):CD001218.
  16. Linde K et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Apr 19;4:CD007587.
  17. Fuentealba CF et al. Rev Med Chil. 2016 Mar;144(3):325-32.
  18. Shergis JL et al. Complement Ther Med. 2016 Jun;26:11-20.
  19. Lv ZT et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:8792167.
  20. Zhou W et al. J Altern Complement Med. 2016 May;22(5):380-9.
  21. Lau CH et al. Medicine (Baltimore). 2016 Mar;95(9):e2901.
  22. Lu L et al. Sci Rep. 2016 Jan 20;6:19521.
  23. Glickman-Simon R et al. Explore (NY). 2017 Jan – Feb;13(1):79-80.
  24. Zou P. Am J Chin Med. 2016;44(8):1579-1594.
  25. Chan E et al. Curr Opin Drug Discov Devel. 2010 Jan;13(1):50-65.

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