Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Countless volumes were written about the Chinese medical theory and the history of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ongoing research in China and in the West is testing the efficacy of traditional treatments and the herbs used by the Chinese for many thousands of years. Chinese medicine finds new applications in the treatment of terminal cancer patients. Many chronic disorders that are hopelessly incurable in the West seem to improve considerably with the Chinese approach to disease. This article presents an introduction to a highly developed and complex medical system.
"When the mind is calm and stable, the vitality of life circulates harmoniously throughout the body. If the body is nourished and protected by this circulation of vitality, how can it possibly become ill?" From Huangdi Neijing also known as the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine

Chinese Traditional Medicine is one of the oldest systematized medical systems in the world. Its recorded history dates back to about 1,000 BC, but its concepts are much older and deeply rooted in the Chinese culture and the Taoist philosophical thought which originated in China more than 5,000 years ago. It is almost impossible to understand the concepts of Chinese medicine without a rudimentary understanding of the philosophy and cosmology of traditional China where immortality was considered to be the highest purpose of life. The Chinese medical ethics developed around this goal and physicians strove to preserve life and prevent disease. They received payment for as long as the patient remained healthy. 

Human body in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine regards human body holistically as a part of a greater whole. This attitude is based on Taoist philosophy and its understanding of the universe. Just as much as an individual has an effect on his or her environment, the environment in which he or she is immersed, has an influence on the individual. Everything we do has a consequence and manifests itself in the flow of energy. Our actions disturb the harmony in nature within and without. We must strive to restore balance and maintain the equilibrium. Symptoms of disease are seen in the context greater than the patient's body and are understood as a disturbance in the flow of energy. To heal means to restore the balance and harmony. 

The anatomical classification of a human body differs form the classification known to the Western medicine and there is no dichotomy between the body and the mind, and both, physical and mental illness, is regarded as a manifestation of an obstructed energy flow within the body and between the human body and the environment.

Key concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • Qi (chi) is one of the most important philosophical concepts in Taoism. Qi literally means air, gas, or breath and is often translated as energy or energy flow. Although not really identical, this concept is often compared to the Greek pneuma or the Indian prana for a better understanding. Qi is the life force that permeates everything that exists in the universe. Obstructions in the flow of qi result in disease and illness. To restore health means to open energy blockages and restore the qi flow in the body.
  • Jing Luo* or meridians are the channels through which the qi energy circulates in the body. Disease occurs when the flow of energy in the meridians is obstructed. Complex techniques were developed to open blockages and restore the flow of energy.
  • San Bao or three treasures are considered to be the three elements sustaining human life. They are the Jing or essence, Qi or energy, and Shen or spirit, soul, or mind. Longevity depends on the properly nurtured body where everything is in balance and the essence jing is abundant. Depleted jing means premature aging, disease, and premature death.
  • Jin Ye or body fluids are generated mostly in the digestive system from the nutrition that enters the body. In the body the fluids undergo multiple transformations until pure fluids are separated from the impure or turbid ones. The pure fluids are transported upwards to the lungs and excreted through the breath. The turbid fluids are transported downwards and excreted through the bladder. Multiple body organs are involved in the transformation of the fluids.
  • Xue or blood is understood as a dense form of body fluids that are under the energizing influence of the qi. Xue does not only flow in the anatomical blood vessels, but also in the meridians because of its relationship with the qi energy. The Chinese developed a very complex theory of blood and its importance to health. Blood provides moisture and nourishment to the organs, bones, tendons, muscles, and the skin. Energized with qi, blood is the foundation for mental activity.
  • Yin Yang represents another ancient concept in Chinese philosophy. Yin and yang are complementary, interdependent aspects of a greater whole. They do not represent duality or dichotomy, although in the West they are often understood as such, but are rather understood as polarities in the non-dualistic Chinese thought. They arise together and the harmony in the universe depends on the balanced flow or interplay between the two forces. In Chinese medicine, health is understood as a perfect balance between the two forces. Because these forces fluctuate constantly, even a healthy body undergoes changes under the influence of the external and the internal environment. Shift in balance is natural. When it becomes pathological it manifests itself as a disease. TCM doctor has to determine the reason for imbalance and bring it back.
  • Wu Xing or the Five Phases also known as the Five Elements, is another concept central in the Chinese thought and was devised to explain the changes in the universe. In the Chinese medicine wu xing correspond with the organs of the body and represent natural cycles and patterns of change where one element affects another causing change in another one. The five elements are: earth, fire, metal, water, wood.
  • Zang Fu* theory divides the body into five zang organs and six fu organs. The zang and fu organs do not exactly represent the anatomical organs in the body, but are rather generalizations of physiology and pathology of associated systems in the human body. The zang organs are responsible for the production and storage of essence: qi, blood, body fluids. The fu organs receive and digest nutrition, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste. Health is understood as the perfect function and harmonious interplay between the organs. To restore health means to calm overactive systems or to energize those that are failing to function properly.
Diagnosis and treatment of disease

Like in the Western medicine, the Chinese doctors examine their patients, make a diagnosis, prescribe medication and treatment. The anamnesis (or gathering of the case history) involves:
  • pulse diagnosis
  • tongue diagnosis
  • diagnosis of the feces and urine
  • examination of physiognomy
A doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine uses his senses to assess a patient's health. Everything that can be observed is useful for a diagnosis of disorder: skin color and texture, body odor, sound of the voice, breathing, etc. After the diagnosis is made, an adequate medication and treatment will be prescribed to restore the energetic balance within the patients body and with the environment. Medication in TCM is based on the more than 5,000 years old documented tradition. Chinese Materia Medica includes plants, minerals, and body parts of particular animals. A special diet will be suggested as certain foods may be detrimental to the condition of a patient, while others restore the balance and enhance the energy flow in the body.

Practitioner of TCM seeks to cure the symptoms of a disease and to eradicate the cause of it. Herbal medication may be sufficient in some cases, however to restore health, a particular treatment or a combination of treatments will prescribed by the doctor. Treatment may include:
  • Acupuncture is a method of treatment unique to Chinese medicine. It was developed and perfected over thousands of years. Because disease is understood as an obstruction in the flow of qi along the meridians, acupuncture is used to restore the flow and create a balance within the body. To achieve this acupuncturist manipulates the energy flow with the help of thin needles that are inserted into the acupuncture points along the meridians of affected organ system. There are twelve main meridians and 400 acupuncture points that are recognized by the World Health Organization. Depending on the patients condition multiple acupuncture sessions may be necessary to remove the energy blockage.
  • Moxibustion is a treatment in which mugwort herb or moxa is used to warm the area in the vicinity or directly on the acupuncture point in order to stimulate circulation. Depending on the diagnosis, moxibustion is used together with acupuncture to especially treat chronic health problems and health problems associated with aging.
  • Cupping is a therapy in which heated glass cups are applied to the skin in the area where the energy is congested and does not flow properly. The cups create suction and draw the blood into the area. This treatment leaves the patient with dark bruises on the area of application, but is very effective for treating cold and flu as well as muscle injuries and headaches. Bruising depends on the severity of injury or congestion and disappears after a few days after the treatment has been completed.
  • Tui na is a Chinese body work developed to restore the balance in the body. The therapist uses a wide range of massage techniques to manipulate the energy flow in the meridians. Tui na is often used in conjunction with acupuncture.
  • Qi gong is therapy that combines breathing, movement, and meditation. It helps to restore and regulate the flow of qi in the body and to promote overall mental and physical health. The exercises were devised to promote longevity.
  • Five elements nutrition is a diet based on the qualities of certain foods according to the Five elements theory. Depending on his condition, a patient is advised to follow a particular diet and to avoid foods that are detrimental to his condition. Emphasis is put on balance and energetic tendencies of certain foods and their interaction with the body systems.
  • Herbal medicine uses thousands of herbs, minerals, and body parts of certain animals. After a diagnosis is made, Chinese practitioner prescribes the most efficient herb or a formula. Over the millennia, countless standardized formulas were developed to treat diseases and conditions. They are all based on the same energetic principles that underlay Chinese medical theory and are meant to restore balance in the body of the patient. Herbs may be added to food and eaten with stews or soups. They can be drank as teas, used in poultices, as tinctures, or as pills.
Chinese medical system was successfully used for thousands of years in China and other Asian countries where the Chinese established their colonies. It was brought to the West with the influx of Chinese immigrants. Its efficacy is legendary and its popularity is growing. As a holistic system, TCM is not only interested in alleviating the symptoms, but most importantly, it addresses the causes of the disease and seeks to restore balance and modify behaviors that disturb the inner and outer flow of energy. All aspects of existence are being addressed to align the body, mind, and spirit.

By Dominique Allmon

*This information is for educational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or cure a disease


*Five Zang organs: heart including the pericardium, lungs, liver, slpeen, and kidneys. Six Fu organs: the gall bladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, bladder, and sanjiao* which represent three different areas of the body. There are also extraordinary fu organs that include the brain, bones, bone marrow, blood vessels, and uterus. Although they are named fu, their function is similar to that of zang organs.

*Jing luo or Meridians. There are twelve standard meridians and eight extraordinary meridians. The twelve standard meridians extend along the arms and legs. They are divided into yin and yang meridians and are assigned to particular organ systems in the body. The eight extraordinary meridians are not directly associated with the zang fu organs. They are rather described as storage vessels for the qi energy and are of great importance to the cultivation of immortality by the adepts of the esoteric art of Chinese alchemy.

*San jiao or triple warmer or triple burner represents an energetic model of the human body in which the body is divided into three areas. The upper warmer corresponds to the thoracic cavity and is responsible for the respiration. The middle warmer corresponds to the dorsal cavity and is responsible for digestion. Lower warmer corresponds to the lower dorsal cavity and is responsible for elimination. 


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An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.