Body & Sports

Understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM

Updated: 2010-01-03
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Although the first recorded history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) dates back around 2,000 years, it is believed that its real origin goes back more than 5,000 years. Chinese medicinal practitioner Lim Sin Hoe shares with us the history of TCM and its medicinal concepts.


ACCORDING to Chinese mythology, the origin of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can be traced back to three legendary Emperors/mythical rulers: Fu Xi, Shen Nong, and Huang Di.


Historians believe that Shen Nong and Fu Xi were early tribal leaders. Fu Xi was a cultural hero who developed the trigrams of Yi Jing (I Ching) or Book of Changes.


With acupuncture, treatment is accomplished by stimulating certain areas of the external body

Shen Nong, the legendary emperor who lived 5,000 years ago, is hailed as the “Divine Cultivator”/“Divine Farmer” by the Chinese because he is attributed as the founder of herbal medicine, and taught people how to farm. In order to determine the nature of different herbal medicines, Shen Nong sampled various kinds of plants, ingesting them himself to test and analyse their individual effects.


Legend has it that Shen Nong tasted a hundred herbs, including 70 toxic substances in a single day, in order to rid people of their illnesses. As there were no written records, it is said that the discoveries of Shen Nong were passed down verbally from generation to generation. It was only many years later that the oldest known book on agriculture and medicinal plants was compiled – Shen Nong Bencao Jing.


In 1578, after reading 800 medical references and conducting 30 years of field study, Li Shizhen completed the Bencao Gangmu, also known as the Compendium of Materia Medica, which has been translated into 20 languages and used as a reference until today.


Clinical diagnosis and treatment in TCM are mainly based on the yin-yang and five elements theories. These theories apply the phenomena and laws of nature to the study of the physiological activities and pathological changes of the human body and its interrelationships. Traditional Korean and Japanese medicine are said to have been developed with the strong influence of TCM.


Following a macro philosophy of disease, TCM diagnostics are based on overall observation of human symptoms rather than “micro” level laboratory tests. There are four types of TCM diagnostic methods: observe (wàng), hear and smell (wén), ask about background (wèn) and touching (qiè).


The diagnostics of an ailment not only includes its cause, mechanism, location, and nature, but also the confrontation between the pathogenic factor and body resistance. Treatment is not based only on the symptoms, but differentiation of syndromes.


Therefore, those with identical ailments may be treated in different ways, and on the other hand, different ailments may result in the same syndrome and are treated in similar ways.


Typical TCM therapies include acupuncture and herbal medicine. Qigong related physical, breathing, and meditation exercises are also often recommended to patients.


With acupuncture, treatment is accomplished by stimulating certain areas of the external body. Herbal medicine acts on organs internally, from improving blood circulation and immunity to addressing the root cause of serious ailments.


Qigong on the other hand, tries to restore the orderly “flow” inside the network through the regulation of “qi”. These therapies appear very different in approach, yet they all share the same underlying sets of assumptions and insights in the nature of the human body and its place in the universe.


TCM requires considerable diagnostic skill. Following formal education in recognised TCM colleges/universities, a training period of years or decades is said to be necessary for TCM practitioners to understand the full complexity of symptoms and dynamic balances. Modern practitioners often use a traditional system in combination with Western methods.


The following methods are considered to be part of TCM:


1. Acupuncture: from the Latin word acus, “needle”, and pungere, meaning “prick”, this is a technique in which the practitioner inserts fine needles into specific points on the patient’s body. Usually about a dozen acupoints are needled in one session, although the number of needles used may range anywhere from just one or two to 20 or more. The intended effect is to increase circulation and balance energy (qi) within the body.


2. Chinese food therapy: dietary recommendations are usually made according to the patient’s individual condition in relation to TCM theory. The “five flavours” indicate what function various types of food play in the body. A balanced diet, which leads to health, is when the five functional flavours are in balance. When one is diseased (and therefore unbalanced), certain foods and herbs are prescribed to restore balance to the body.


3. Chinese herbal medicine: of the approximately 500 Chinese herbs that are in use today, 250 or so are very commonly used. Rather than being prescribed individually, single herbs are combined into formulas that are designed to adapt to the specific needs of individual patients.


An herbal formula can contain anywhere from three to 25 herbs. As with diet therapy, each herb has one or more of the five flavours/functions and one of five “temperatures” (“qi”) (hot, warm, neutral, cool, cold). After the herbalist determines the energetic temperature and functional state of the patient’s body, a mixture of herbs tailored to balance disharmony is prescribed.


For example, the herbs Carthami flos and Leonuri herba are commonly prescribed to improve blood circulation and clear clotted blood, and are well known medicated herbs for women.


4. Cupping: A type of Chinese massage, cupping consists of placing several glass “cups” (open spheres) on the body. A match is lit and placed inside the cup and then removed before placing the cup against the skin. As the air in the cup is heated, it expands, and after placing on the skin, cools down, creating a lower pressure inside the cup that allows the cup to stick to the skin via suction.


When combined with massage oil, the cups can be slid around the back, offering what some practitioners think of as a reverse-pressure massage.


5. Gu Shang Ke or Chinese Medicinal Orthopedic: this is usually practised by martial artists who know aspects of Chinese medicine that apply to the treatment of trauma and injuries such as bone fractures, sprains, and bruises. Some of these specialists may also use or recommend other disciplines of Chinese medical therapies if serious injury is involved.


6. Tui na: a form of massage akin to acupressure from which the Japanese massage technique of Shiatsu evolved. Oriental massage is typically administered with the patient fully clothed, without the application of grease or oils. Choreography often involves thumb presses, rubbing, percussion, and stretches.




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