Chinese medicine is a medical system that has an entirely different core philosophy from Western medicine. There is a great concern for the patient’s feelings, as well as an entirely different approach to how problems should be tackled. This has caused it to be seen by Westerners as highly mysterious, bordering on the magical.
There is an undeniable mystique that accompanies Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM, a range of traditional medical and therapeutic practices developed in China over thousands of years. In fact, one of the earliest known compilations on Chinese medical practices dates back to 2698 B.C. To the uninformed, it is assumed that TCM is all about the use of exotic products such as bat excrement and cow urine as medicine. Many also wrongly assume that the diagnosis and treatment offered by TCM practitioners are nothing more than just guesswork; and that these practitioners do not really have actual abilities to discern the patient’s symptoms.
In truth, Traditional Chinese Medicine is a complex and centuries-old system that has been shown to be effective in the treatment and management of various ailments ranging from sinusitis to muscle spasms. Chinese herbal concoctions have also shown efficacy in providing migraine reliefs and lower back pain relief, and everything in between.
The core concepts of traditional Chinese medicine can be found in Chinese philosophy, with Wu Xing and the concept of yin and yang as the primary foundations of both diagnosis and treatment practices. The basic perception of the body in Chinese medicine is that it is a whole, but with separate parts. The parts are designed to work together in harmony, generally by balancing their naturally opposing concepts against one another. Each part not only serves a physical function but is also important to mental processes. This explains the belief in Chinese medicine that what affects one’s physical health also has consequences for one’s mental health, with each imbalance in the body having a counterpart imbalance in the mind. This aspect echoes the principles of yin and yang, which is best summarized as a blending of two opposing but complementary concepts, with neither one being superior in any way over the other. Disharmony is said to occur when yin or yang becomes more prevalent in the body than the other. This disharmony or imbalance is thought to be the reason behind human illnesses.
The Wu Xing aspect comes into play in terms of analyzing how the disharmony came about. Wu Xing is similar to the classical concept of the basic elements which are composed of fire, water, wood, earth, and metal. Each of these elements can be found in the body, with varying concentrations in different areas of the body. Combined, the elements produce a delicate balance and results in the normal state of a person’s physical and mental health. This balance can be affected by internal and external factors, which can sway the elemental balance in a variety of ways. In theory, an increase in certain elements in areas that perform certain functions can sway the yin and yang balance, thus affecting a person’s health.
The treatment for the condition, whether it be sinusitis, lower back pain, knee pain, migraine headaches, visual migraines, insomnia, or whatever else ails the patient is ultimately determined by where the imbalance is and what caused it. For example, an excess of water that swayed the balance more to the yang in the nasal area is sometimes cited to cause problems such as colds and sinusitis. To counter this, a traditional Chinese doctor might prescribe a formula composed of herbs and more exotic ingredients to help suppress the water element and, thus, restore balance to the yin and yang.
Traditional Chinese medicine also espouses a number of other treatments, including those based on the manipulation of the patient’s diet.
Another famous aspect or branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine is called acupuncture, a technique that involves the insertion of needles into the skin on specific points around the body to help restore ‘balance’ between the Yin and Yang. Acupuncture is also the branch of TCM that is concerned with the treatment of what Western medicine would term as mental health disorders including anxiety and phobias. Acupuncture is seen as an effective means of balancing the flow of ‘chi’ or internal energy throughout the body. In TCM, the need to balance the yin and yang of the mind and heart is as important as attaining balance in the human body.
Modern TCM practitioners in China, however, do acknowledge that there are situations when the traditional remedies can no longer put the body back in proper balance. In most cases, when such situations are encountered, the patient is advised to consult a doctor who practices Western medicine. However, this does not create a conflict between the two schools since most Chinese patients and doctors actually appreciate the ‘balance’ between Eastern and Western medical theory and practice. For example, Chinese people will have no problems with surgery for appendicitis. At the same time, they will see no conflict in using traditional herbal formulas to help recover after the surgery, or to prevent the appendicitis in the first place. This is often in sharp contrast to the attitude of some practitioners of traditional Western medicine who tend to dismiss other medical philosophies, theories, or schools as mere quackery.