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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)


Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China and has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use herbs, acupuncture, and other methods to treat a wide range of conditions.

Key Points

  • Herbal remedies, acupuncture, massage and dietary therapy are the treatments most commonly used by TCM practitioners.
  • The TCM view of how the body works, what causes illness, and how to treat illness is different from Western medicine concepts. Although TCM is used by the American public, scientific evidence of its effectiveness is, for the most part, limited. Acupuncture has the largest body of evidence and is considered safe if practiced correctly. Some Chinese herbal remedies may be safe, but others may not be.


Traditional Chinese medicine, which encompasses many different practices, is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism and dates back more than 5,000 years. Today, TCM is practiced side by side with Western medicine in many of China’s hospitals and clinics.

According to the National Institutes of Health, TCM is widely used in human medicine in United States. Although the exact number of people who use TCM in the United States is unknown, according to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included questions on the use of various complementary and alternative therapies, an estimated 3.1 million U.S. adults had used acupuncture in the previous year. In addition, according to this same survey, approximately 17 percent of adults use natural products, including herbs, making it the most commonly used therapy. In another survey, more than one-third of the patients at six large acupuncture clinics said they also received Chinese herbal treatments at the clinics.

Underlying Concepts

Underlying the practice of TCM is a unique view of the world and the human body that is different from Western medicine concepts. This view is based on the ancient Chinese perception of humans as microcosms of the larger, surrounding universe—interconnected with nature and subject to its forces. The human body is regarded as an organic entity in which the various organs, tissues, and other parts have distinct functions but are all interdependent. In this view, health and disease relate to balance of the functions.

The theoretical framework of TCM has a number of key components:

  • Yin-yang theory—the concept of two opposing, yet complementary, forces that shape the world and all life is central to TCM.
  • In the TCM view, a vital energy or life force called qi circulates in the body through a system of pathways called meridians. Health is an ongoing process of maintaining balance and harmony in the circulation of qi.
  • The TCM approach uses eight principles to analyze symptoms and categorize conditions: cold/heat, interior/exterior, excess/deficiency, and yin/yang (the chief principles). TCM also uses the theory of five elements—fire, earth, metal, water, and wood—to explain how the body works; these elements correspond to particular organs and tissues in the body.

These concepts are documented in the Huang Di Nei Jing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor), the classic Chinese medicine text.


TCM emphasizes individualized treatment. Practitioners traditionally used four methods to evaluate a patient’s condition: observing (especially the tongue), hearing/smelling, asking/interviewing the pet owner as to the pet’s demeanor, and touching/palpating (especially the pulse).

TCM practitioners use a variety of therapies in an effort to promote health and treat disease. The most commonly used are Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture.

  • Chinese herbal medicine. The Chinese materia medica (a pharmacological reference book used by TCM practitioners) contains hundreds of medicinal substances—primarily plants, but also some minerals and animal products—classified by their perceived action in the body. Different parts of plants such as the leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds are used. Usually, herbs are combined in formulas and given as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.
  • Acupuncture. By stimulating specific points on the body, most often by inserting thin metal needles through the skin, practitioners seek to remove blockages in the flow of qi.

Status of TCM Research

In spite of the widespread use of TCM in China and its growing use among humans in the West, scientific evidence of its effectiveness is, for the most part, limited. TCM’s complexity and underlying conceptual foundations present challenges for researchers seeking evidence on whether and how it works. Most research has focused on specific modalities, primarily acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies.

Acupuncture research has produced a large body of scientific evidence. Studies suggest that it may be useful for a number of different conditions, but additional research is still needed.

Chinese herbal medicine has also been studied for a wide range of conditions in humans. Most of the research has been done in China. Although there is evidence that herbs may be effective for some conditions, most studies have been methodologically flawed, and additional, better designed research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn.

What is TCM good for?

Over the centuries, TCM has been used to treat countless conditions. Western scientists are still studying its effectiveness for various diseases. For serious conditions, make sure you are working with a conventional doctor along with a TCM practitioner. Always let everyone on your health care team know about any medicines, herbs, or supplements you’re taking. Some of the conditions for which TCM is known to be helpful include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes and its complications
  • High cholesterol
  • Arthritis
  • Back pain
  • Digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • Recurrent cystitis, inflammation of the bladder
  • Nausea and vomiting

TCM may also be an effective treatment for the following ailments:

  • Allergies
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Sinusitis
  • Pain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Infections (respiratory, bladder, vaginal)
  • Stress
  • Constipation
  • Diabetic neuropathy
  • Epilepsy



The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations for dietary supplements (including manufactured herbal products) are not the same as those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs; in general, the regulations for dietary supplements are less strict. Some Chinese herbal treatments may be safe, but others may not be. There have been reports of products being contaminated with drugs, toxins, or heavy metals or not containing the listed ingredients. Some of the herbs are very powerful, can interact with drugs, and may have serious side effects. For example, the Chinese herb ephedra (ma huang) has been linked to serious health complications, including heart attack and stroke. In 2004, the FDA banned the sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements used for weight loss and performance enhancement, but the ban does not apply to TCM remedies or to herbal teas.

Acupuncture is considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles.

References (in human medicine)

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Allen JJ, Schnyer RN, Chambers AS, et al., Acupuncture for depression: a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry. 2006;67(11):1665-73.

Casimiro L, Barnsley L, Brosseau L, et al., Acupuncture and electroacupuncture for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005;(4):CD003788.

Chen KW, Hassett AL, Hou F, Staller J, Lichtbroun AS. A pilot study of external qigong therapy for patients with fibromyalgia. J Altern Complement Med. 2006;12(9):851-6.

Efferth T, Li PC, Konkimalla VS, Kaina B. From traditional Chinese medicine to rational cancer therapy. Trends Mol Med. 2007; [Epub ahead of print].

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Ezzo J, Streitberger K, Schneider A. Cochrane systematic reviews examine P6 acupuncture-point stimulation for nausea and vomiting. J Altern Complement Med. 2006;12(5):489-95.

Ferro MA, Leis A, Doll R, Chiu L, Chung M, Barroetavena MC. The impact of acculturation on the use of traditional Chinese medicine in newly diagnosed Chinese cancer patients. Support Care Cancer. 2007; [Epub ahead of print].

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Kennedy S, Jin X, Yu H, Zhong S, Magill P, van Vliet T, Kistemaker C, Voors C, Pasman W. Randomized controlled trial assessing a traditional Chinese medicine remedy in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea. Fertil Steril. 2006;86(3):762-4.

Lahans T. Integrating Chinese and conventional medicine in colorectal cancer treatment. Integr Cancer Ther. 2007;6(1):89-94.

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Li Q, Zhao D, Bezard E. Traditional Chinese medicine for Parkinson’s disease: a review of Chinese literature. Behav Pharmacol. 2006;17(5-6):403-10.

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Ratcliffe J, Thomas KJ, MacPherson H, Brazier J. A randomised controlled trial of acupuncture care for persistent low back pain: cost effectiveness analysis. BMJ. 2006;333(7569):626.

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