Most people are familiar with acupuncture, but there’s far more to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) than the needles.
“TCM is an ancient medical system that looks at human physiology in a way that predates our current knowledge of human physiology and medicine,” explains Victoria Chan Harrison, MD, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The Basics of TCM
“The traditional Chinese approach to health views the body as composed of different elements (water, fire, metal, wood, earth) and organ systems (kidney, bladder, heart, pericardium, triple heater, gallbladder, liver, lung, spleen) that need to be in balance at all times,” says Dr. Harrison.
In TCM, all of the body’s systems are connected through a network of channels called meridians. Another key aspect of TCM is Qi (also called Chi), the vital life force or energy that flows throughout the body.
“The Chinese medical model also looks at environmental pathogens that may affect the human body (wind, heat, damp, cold). When a pathogen ‘invades’ the body, it can impair the flow of blood and Qi in the meridians as well. Once the imbalances, decreased blood flow, and Qi stagnation remain unchecked over a prolonged period of time, people can experience symptoms of what Western medicine calls diseases or illnesses,” says Dr. Harrison.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
- An acupuncture needle is the thickness of a human hair, and the end is blunt; it is not meant to cut or puncture the skin.
- The procedure of placing the needles at points along the meridians is called “needling.”
- When needling is done, the patient may feel a small prick and a sensation of heaviness, fullness, or spreading. However, some patients don’t feel anything.
- Many patients become very relaxed and fall asleep during acupuncture treatment.
TCM utilizes different methods to control symptoms and prevent disease manifestation. For example, “gua sha” and “cupping” both work on the myofascial layer—the connective tissue that lies beneath the skin—to increase circulation to the treated areas. Gua sha involves scraping the skin, often with a rounded, smooth stone or a special type of spoon, and cupping involves creating a vacuum to lift subcutaneous tissue.
“The goal is to improve the flow of Qi in areas of pain and at sites of muscle tissue injury. It is also often used to promote an immune response to fight a cold virus (in TCM, this is called ‘cold wind invasion’),” says Dr. Harrison.
Acupuncture is the practice of stimulating meridians with needles in order to correct imbalances and improve the flow of Qi.
Pain is the symptom for which acupuncture is most commonly used in the U.S. Types of pain treated with acupuncture include joint pain (shoulder, knee, hip, jaw), neck and low back pain, muscle and connective tissue pain, and headaches, including migraines.
“Acupuncture also can be very effective for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, and it can be used as a preventive measure for migraines,” says Dr. Harrison.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can be used together to address the imbalances in the body’s five elements and in a particular organ system, as well as trying to expel pathogenic environment effects, such as damp heat or cold wind. Dr. Harrison explains that, traditionally, most Chinese herb formulas were purchased whole and then boiled to create a tea, but today, this method is less popular. Most modern Chinese herb formulas now come in the form of pills or tinctures.
Dr. Harrison advises caution when choosing Chinese herbs. She says, “In the modern world, utilization of Chinese herbal remedies can be problematic because of the lack of environmental and pharmacological regulation in the production, processing, and purity of the herbs. For example, there are concerns about trace amounts of heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, that may taint herbs. I typically recommend that Chinese herbal products be purchased from an American company that tests for heavy metals to ensure quality of the product.”
If you are looking for a doctor who practices acupuncture or TCM, you may want to check the website of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (www.nccaom.org). Many states require a four-year master’s degree in acupuncture or traditional Oriental medicine and passing a board exam to become licensed.
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