Traditional Chinese Medicine: Principles and Safety

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic approach to treating a person’s mental and physical health issues. It developed thousands of years ago and its basic practices have changed little since then.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the theory that disease arises from an imbalance in a person’s vital energy (called Qi). The objective of TCM is to restore harmony inside an individual and balancing the forces of yin and yang, which are components of qi.

Eastern medicine versus Western medicine

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The differences between Eastern and Western medicine are defined by:

  • How Diagnosis Works: Eastern medicine looks at the physical and energetic health of the whole person and their environment, not just isolated symptoms of structural or organ-related problems.
  • How the treatment is applied: TCM treatment is applied to balance qi, whereas Western medicine focuses on reducing or curing specific symptoms of illnesses.
  • Discovery methods: oriental medicine uses a range of methods, including observation, trial and error, and clinical research. Western medicine focuses on the scientific method to test specific ideas to see if they work.

The beginnings of traditional Chinese medicine

The earliest writings attributed to traditional Chinese medicine are attributed to the Shang dynasty and date back 3,000 years. Etched in tortoiseshell and bone, the writings describe the concept of qi, defined as circular motion in the body. It also describes xue, or blood. These texts describe how an excess, deficiency or stagnation in the movement of qi and/or xue can lead to imbalance and poor health.

What is Chi?

yin and yang
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Chi is the English word for qi. It represents the concept of “life force” existing both inside and outside the body. Qi is described as a force that composes and binds all things in the universe together.

Chi is made up of two branches that can have an impact on health. One branch relates to everything that we absorb into our body (breath) and the other relates to what circulates in our body (blood). TCM practitioners also view blood as an energetic concept.

These two branches can be seen as complementary opposites or yin and yang. According to traditional Chinese medicine, an imbalance between our inner state and the outer world creates disease.

Balancing Yin and Yang

Balancing yin and yang is the goal of any TCM treatment. TCM works on the principle that balance is achieved by creating harmony between the internal organs and the external elements of earth, fire, water, wood and metal.

List of healing techniques

The following techniques are all intended to help a person regain balance and promote harmony between yin and yang:


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Acupuncture is when a practitioner stimulates specific points on the body by inserting thin needles through the skin. It is one of the most proven methods used in traditional Chinese medicine, although study results vary.

Clinical research reviews suggest that acupuncture helps the body release natural pain relievers and may be effective in helping to reduce symptoms in patients with chronic (continuing) pain.

tai chi

Tai Chi is a type of gentle and slow exercise which includes body movements and focused breath work. It has been described as “moving meditation” and “moving medicine”.

Originally a form of martial arts, it was adapted as part of TCM techniques as a means of encouraging the proper flow of qi and promoting the balance between yin and yang.

suction cups

In cupping, also called cupping therapy, a practitioner uses hot glass jars that create suction on the skin on certain areas of the body (usually the back, stomach, arms, and legs).

Cupping draws your skin into the pot, opens up tiny blood vessels under the skin, and works by creating this setting for blood to flow to the area and stimulate the wound healing process. More research is needed to confirm exactly how it works and how effective it is for chronic pain relief. high blood pressureand other ailments.


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Herbs are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat the whole person and their symptoms. Herbs are prepared as capsules, teas or extracts and powders, in traditional or custom formulations. Herbal remedies are different from pharmaceuticals used in Western medicine, which target specific symptoms of disease. Many herbs can help treat hard-to-diagnose or treat syndromes, including allergies, infertility, and menopause.

Before starting any herbal supplement, check with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s right for you and won’t interfere with any medications you’re already taking.

Ensure the security

Traditional Chinese Medicine may have a long history, but that does not mean that all methods are safe and risk-free or that everyone offering Traditional Chinese Medicine is qualified to do so.

For example, while herbs can be used effectively to treat certain ailments, these remedies can also cause serious side effects and contraindications to medications and other health problems. It’s hard to know what herbs you’re taking due to the lack of regulations and standardized labeling practices.

Ensuring safety comes down to working directly with a qualified TCM practitioner.

Where to find a TCM practitioner

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To find a TCM practitioner, remember to go to National Commission for Certification in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) website directory. Choosing someone from this directory ensures that you are working with someone who holds a recognized certification.

During your first visit

During your first visit, the practitioner will collect information. They’ll ask direct questions and check for “non-verbal elements” including your demeanor, voice, body sounds, complexion, and the way your body moves.

They will also examine your tongue, take your pulse and temperature, and check areas for muscle tone and pain or discomfort near or around internal organs, as appropriate.

Consult your health care provider

For safety’s sake, you’ll want to make sure your healthcare provider is aware of which TCM techniques you’re considering using and which ones you’ve decided to try. This is especially true in chronic illness, pregnancy, and when prescription medications are involved.


Traditional Chinese medicine techniques such as acupuncture, Tai Chi, cupping and herbs have been used for thousands of years. Their purpose is to help a person balance their life force known as qi. Qi is made up of yin and yang elements. Although some methods can be helpful, TCM is not without risk and should only be applied with the support of a trained practitioner.

A word of well-being

Traditional Chinese medicine should not be used to replace Western medicine or to delay the possibility of treatment for serious disorders, infections or the like. If you’re curious about what traditional Chinese medicine has to offer, consider talking to your healthcare provider and a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner before trying any options at home.

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