Medicine doesn’t always involve filling a prescription. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes a whole menu of treatments — some of which you might have tried, and others that might be new to you.
I’m listening. What’s TCM all about?
Balance. TCM treatments are focused on maintaining a balanced Qi (pronounced “chee”), or vital energy. The idea: all the body’s organs and the world around you mutually support each other and rely on a balanced ebb and flow of energy. Any blockage or imbalance in Qi can result in disease or illness. Qi is influenced by two opposite yet complementary forces known as yin and yang. Insert new appreciation for those black-and-white stickers on your middle school binders.
What are some TCM practices?
Everyone and their homeopathic mother is into “alternative” or integrative medicine these days. But turns out, many of these treatments have been around for thousands of years. Because what’s old is new again. Here are some of the most popular ones.
Acupuncture…The one with the needles. Practitioners stimulate points on the body, usually by inserting thin needles into the skin. It’s all about releasing the flow of the body’s Qi by activating points along 12 primary energy pathways, Aka meridians. It’s primarily used to relieve pain, and studies show that it’s effective for specific conditions like osteoarthritis, lower back pain, and headaches.
Tai chi and qigong…The ones with the slow-mo poses. These mind-body practices involve postures and gentle movements that center on breathing, mental focus, and relaxation. If you think this sounds like meditation...ding ding ding. These practices are often referred to as “meditation in motion.” Tai chi movements, when practiced quickly, can be used in combat or self-defense, while qigong often involves simpler movements and more repetition. Both practices may reduce anxiety and improve balance. Tai chi has been shown to specifically improve balance in older people and Parkinson’s patients.
Moxibustion…The one that burns. It involves a practitioner burning dried mugwort and applying heat either directly on or about an inch from the skin, until it becomes red and warm. The heat generated during moxibustion is said to increase the flow of Qi. Sensing a pattern? Moxibustion can be used to treat pain, digestive issues, and arthritis, and it’s most commonly known as a way to help turn a breech baby. Which a 2018 survey of studies found can be effective, but there’s no conclusive data on whether the practice can truly help.
Cupping…The one that leaves a trail. Suction is created on the skin using plastic, bamboo, ceramic, or glass cups and either heat or an air pump to create suction. It’s meant to increase blood circulation in the area where the cup is placed and work towards restoring the flow of — you guessed it — Qi. There are two main types of cupping: dry cupping, which is suction-only, and wet cupping, which adds on controlled medicinal bleeding. Tiny cuts are made in the skin and people bleed into the cups, which practitioners believe removes toxins from the body. But this practice, like many treatments, comes with fine print: cupping can cause side effects like temporary skin discoloration, scars, burns, or, in rare cases, infections. It’s primarily used to treat muscle aches and pains and some athletes swear by its effects on sore muscles. You might remember those pictures of Michael Phelps at the 2016 Olympics. Note to self: maybe don’t wear a backless dress after a cupping session. Marks usually fade after about a week or two.
Tuina (or tui-na)...The one with the strong hands. It’s a type of massage that’s based on promoting Qi flow, and it’s often used in combination with acupuncture. There are two main styles of tuina massages, that can be described using yin and yang. Yin massages are more gentle, while yangs are more active and physical. These massages can be used to treat fatigue, asthma, and conditions like arthritis and neck and back pain.
How is all this different from Western medicine?
In Western medicine, the body is often considered in pieces, and treatment is based on a diagnosis of something wrong with one of those pieces. In TCM, the body is viewed holistically, and treatment is based on fixing the overall imbalance of Qi. Western medicine separates the disease from overall health, while TCM considers disease to be an unbalanced state versus a balanced state. Western medicine is more widely accepted in the American medical community, while some consider TCM a bit woo woo.
About that. Does this stuff actually work?
Depends on the person and the practitioner. Every individual is different, and TCM is often recommended in addition to a Western medicine regimen. In 2019, the WHO added TCM practices to its “global compendium” (which is like an encyclopedia for diagnoses and treatments) for the first time. While some studies confirm the effectiveness of TCM, others suggest that TCM practices are no more effective than placebos. It’s important to look for a trained practitioner when booking appointments. Most states require certification from The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine to practice. Check that site, The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, or The Institute of Traditional Medicine to find someone with the right credentials near you.
Even though Traditional Chinese Medicine has been around for a longggg time, only in recent decades has it started to get mainstream recognition. And it still has its fair share of skeptics. If you’re curious, talk to your doctor to decide if it’s right for you.