Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Topic Overview

What is traditional Chinese medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine is a system of medicine partly based on the idea that an energy, called qi (say "chee"), flows along pathways in the body called meridians. In this belief, if the flow of qi along these meridians is blocked or unbalanced, illness can occur. In China, doctors have practiced traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, and it is gaining in popularity in many Western countries.

Causes of qi imbalance are thought to involve:

  • External forces, such as wind, cold, or heat.
  • Internal forces, such as emotions of joy, anger, or fear.
  • Lifestyle factors, such as poor diet, too little sleep, or too much alcohol.

Another important concept in traditional Chinese medicine is the concept of yin and yang. In this approach, all things, including the body, are composed of opposing forces called yin and yang. Health is said to depend on the balance of these forces. Traditional Chinese medicine focuses on maintaining the yin-yang balance to maintain health and prevent illness.

Traditional Chinese medicine doctors look at the balance of body, mind, and spirit to determine how to restore qi, the yin-yang balance, and good health.

What is traditional Chinese medicine used for?

People use traditional Chinese medicine to treat many illnesses from asthma and allergies to cancer and infertility. Traditional Chinese medicine doctors may use several types of treatment to restore qi balance.

Traditional Chinese medicine therapies include:

  • Acupuncture, which uses thin metal needles placed along the body's meridians.
  • Acupressure, which uses the hands or fingers to apply direct pressure to points along the body's meridians.
  • Chinese herbs, combinations of herbs, roots, powders, or animal substances to help restore balance in the body.
  • Cupping, which uses warm air in glass jars to create suction placed on areas of the body to help stimulate qi.
  • Diet. Yin and yang foods can help restore the yin-yang balance in the body.
  • Massage (tui na) on specific areas of the body or along the body's meridians.
  • Moxibustion, which uses small amounts of heated plant fiber (moxa, or Chinese mugwort) on specific areas of the body.
  • Qi gong, which uses movement, breathing techniques, and meditation.

Is traditional Chinese medicine safe?

Research in China and worldwide has shown traditional Chinese medicine to be helpful for many types of illness. Because traditional Chinese medicine differs from Western medical practice in diagnosis and treatment methods, it is difficult to apply Western scientific standards to it.

For example, in Western medical practice, any two people with a similar infection (such as sinusitis) may be treated with a standard course of antibiotics. In traditional Chinese medicine, each person might receive a different treatment for the same illness depending on the person's own qi and yin-yang balance.

The United States accredits schools in traditional Chinese medicine, so a practitioner certified by an accredited school has had extensive training in traditional Chinese medicine.

The National Institutes of Health, through the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and other institutes, funds ongoing research of many complementary therapies to determine their benefits and risks. Acupuncture has been the most studied traditional Chinese medicine treatment and has become accepted as a therapy for certain conditions in the United States. Promising results have been found for the use of acupuncture in treating nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, postsurgery pain, and pregnancy. Acupuncture also may be useful for other conditions such as addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma. In general, acupuncture is safe when done by a certified acupuncturist. The treatment can be expensive and time-consuming.

Like conventional medicines, traditional Chinese herbal medicines may also cause side effects, trigger allergic reactions, or interact with other prescription and nonprescription medicines or herbs. Before you use any traditional Chinese therapies, be sure to tell your health professional about any prescription, nonprescription, or other natural supplements you are taking.

Always tell your doctor if you are using an alternative therapy or if you are thinking about combining an alternative therapy with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on an alternative therapy.

Related Information


Other Works Consulted

  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2011). Backgrounder. Acupuncture: An introduction. (NCCAM Publication No. D404). Available online:
  • Nolting MH (2013). Chinese prepared medicines. In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 655–659. St. Louis: Mosby.
  • Zunin ID, Wong M (2013). Eastern origins of integrative medicine and modern applications. In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 2–7. St. Louis: Mosby.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

Current as ofJuly 2, 2015