Traditional Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture

Key Points

  • Herbal remedies and acupuncture are the treatments most commonly used by TCM practitioners. Other TCM practices include moxibustion, cupping, massage, mind-body therapy, and dietary therapy.
  • The TCM view of how the human 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.
  • TCM is typically delivered by a practitioner. Before using TCM, ask about the practitioner’s qualifications, including training and licensure.
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

Background

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.

TCM is widely used in the United States. Although the exact number of people who use TCM in the United States is unknown, it was estimated in 1997 that some 10,000 practitioners served more than 1 million patients each year. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included questions on the use of various CAM 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 of Traditional Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture

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 offive 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.

Treatment

TCM emphasizes individualized treatment. Practitioners traditionally used four methods to evaluate a patient’s condition: observing (especially the tongue), hearing/smelling, asking/interviewing, 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.

Other TCM therapies include moxibustion (burning moxa—a cone or stick of dried herb, usually mugwort—on or near the skin, sometimes in conjunction with acupuncture); cupping (applying a heated cup to the skin to create a slight suction); Chinese massage; mind-body therapies such as qi gong and tai chi; and dietary therapy.

Training, Licensing, and Certification

Most states license acupuncture, but states vary in their inclusion of other TCM components (e.g., herbal medicine) in the licenses they issue. The federally recognized Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) accredits schools that teach acupuncture and TCM, and about one-third of the states that license acupuncture require graduation from an ACAOM-accredited school. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) offers separate certification programs in acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and Oriental bodywork. Almost all licensing states require completion of NCCAOM’s national written exam; some states also require a practical exam.

Courtesy of National Institute of Health and NCCAM.