Chinese Medicine, also known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM,) includes a wide range of medical practices which all share common concepts, for example, acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and diet.
How is TCM different than Western Medicine?
Western medicine is the form of medical treatments developed in the past several hundred years involving surgeries and pharmaceutical drugs. It is the most common form of medical treatment in America as well as much of North America and Europe.
While Western medicine is symptom-based, meaning it focuses on analyzing a patient’s symptoms and attempts to find a medication or treatment to cure the symptom, TCM is a holistic medicine which looks at the whole person and gets a sense of what is at the root of the problem. TCM operates on the theory that if the root of the problem is cured, the symptoms resolve on their own.
A Western medical diagnosis which is categorized as a single issue with a limited number of treatment options may present in TCM as a number of different presentations with a slew of treatment options because a TCM practitioner is looking at much more than just the symptom.
For example, IBS, which is a common cause of digestive upset for Americans, is considered in Western medicine to be caused by stress and/or anxiety. The most common treatment option is anti-anxiety medication and if that doesn’t work there is rarely another option offered. In TCM, however, IBS may be the end result of at least 6 different presentations that I can think of off the top of my head. The acupuncture points and herbs used, as well as the dietary recommendations made, would all be different depending on the presentation of the individual patient.
A trained acupuncturist/herbalist is able to determine a patient’s differential diagnoses based on symptoms and a physical exam. This customization of treatment is part of why TCM is so effective, and why many patients who have tried countless other options finally find relief with this holistic medicine.
How the Body Works – according to TCM
TCM views the body as a series of connected and interrelated channels, which are also translated as meridians or vessels. There are 12 main channels which have internal and external branches, connecting internal organs with the surface of the skin. On the skin the channels have specific locations, called acupuncture or acupressure points, where we are able to access the energy of the channel and affect different parts of the body.
I find an apt metaphor for channel theory to be a subway system, the subway lines being the channels and the stations being the points. We can only access the channels/subways at the points/stations, but depending on how the channels/subways connect you can travel great distances and affect the opposite end of the body.
Each of the channels have different characteristics depending on the internal organs they are connected to, and their corresponding points also have different characteristics depending on where they are located. For example, the lung system governs breathing, the sinuses, emotions and immunity, so some points along the lung channel are better for allergies while others are better for cough and others are better for emotional release.
TCM views the body as made up of a number of vital substances, some which have correlation in Western medicine and some which don’t. Blood, for example, is easy enough of a concept to understand. Qi, however, can be a bit trickier to explain.
Qi is often translated as “energy” but I find that “function” is a much better fit. When Qi arrives at an acupuncture point or an organ or a specific part of the body it helps that part of the body to function properly. If Qi is stuck or deficient in any organ system or part of the body then symptoms may arise, such as pain, weakness or an organ not working as well as it could. For example, if the Qi of the Lung system is deficient, then cough may result because the Lung it’s functioning as well as it should be.
Yin and Yang, which are popular concepts in Asian cultures, are also viewed as vital substances in the body which are always seeking balance.
Yin is cool, calm, dark and quiet in nature, while Yang is warm, active, bright and loud in nature. The easiest way to think of them as Yin being nighttime and Yang being day time. We need Yin energy to be able to sleep, calm down, digest and replenish for the day ahead. We need Yang energy to be able to feel driven, passionate, to get up and out of bed, converse, go to work and do the things we love.
The balance of Yin and Yang are of utmost importance, without balance we can quickly feel burnt out, exhausted, unable to sleep at night, stressed, and overtime this can throw off digestion, hormone levels, reproduction, or cause chronic conditions.
Finally, the two other vital substances are Shen, which is translated as spirit, and Jing, which is translated as essence or vitality. We don’t have to go too far down the theory wormhole with these but the short explanation is that Shen makes up much of our personality and is reflected in our eyes. The term “crazy eyes” is often associated with mental disturbances, or as we would say in TCM “shen disturbance” because it is a sign that patient’s shen is not balanced.
Jing, is a much more complicated concept so I’ll really do my best to keep the explanation short. Jing is housed in the Kidney system and is the deepest vital substance in the body. It is responsible for genetics, development, the functioning of the brain and nervous system as well as reproduction. We get our Jing from our parents and pass it onto our children, so it is possible to pass deficiency on as you would a genetic condition.
Each of the vital substances plays a different role in the body and affects different organs and channels. A trained acupuncturist and/or herbalist takes each of these into consideration while formulating a diagnosis. For example, some typical diagnoses include Liver Qi Stagnation, Kidney Jing Deficiency or Heart Blood Deficiency. The more specific a diagnosis the practitioner is able to formulate, the most specifically appropriate the treatment plan they are able to construct.