TCM - What is it all about?


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Thousands of years of empirical research and practical medical application in China have formed a model of human health that differs quite significantly from the western (reductionist and materialist) approach. Those differences however are not necessarily mutually exclusive. And during the latter half of the last century more and more practitioners of either medicine have been studying and increasingly and successfully applying the other model. 

Having said all that, let us return to the TCM approach: The eastern tradition models the human body/mind as an energy system. With a number of main vessels (meridians) that are connected with certain organs and viscera, and a vast network of smaller vessels (collateral) that distribute the energy throughout the body. Physical and mental states are viewed as basically interdependent and treated accordingly.

Each meridian has a number of specific points with different attributes and functions. In general these points are gates that potentially allow pathogenic influences into the body, but they also allow us to regulate the energy flow using techniques such as acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, or masso/tuina massage.

(Neither meridians nor collateral co-incide with the blood vessels, lymphatic, or nervous system of the western model, but have been proven (both, vessels and points) in numerous research projects in both west and east, showing significantly different properties from other parts of the body, e.g. electrical resistance.)

The energy used in this system is generally called 'chi' (or 'qi', or, in Japanese, 'ki'), the universal life-force. Chi has two opposing (and at the same time complementary) aspects, 'yin', and 'yang'. And the energies in our body/mind system are influenced by the state of the corresponding organs and by external factors.

According to TCM we are healthy when our energies are

  • balanced (between yin & yang, between the different parts of the system, etc.)
  • flowing (not blocked, or stagnant), and
  • in sufficient, but not excessive levels.

Interesting enough the causality in this definition works both ways: Not only are we healthy when these conditions are present (and unhealthy if they aren't), but when we are unhealthy, any or all of these conditions will be absent.

Energy disturbances are at the same time a cause for health problems and their effect (e.g. of organic weaknesses or external harmful influences).

Which leads directly to the method of diagnosis applied, and to the fact that TCM diagnosis can detect health issues often a long time before normal western check-ups would show anything amiss.

The therapist uses the examination of the patient's pulses (TCM knows a lot more (and more differentiated) pulses on the wrists than the western counterparts), tongue, and (possibly), iris, to determine the state of the patient's energy system.

The potential issues are

  • low energy levels (in rare cases there might be excessive energy levels),
  • blockage / stagnation,
  • invasion of external pathogenic factors (wind, cold, damp, fire, dryness, summer heat)

(the first two also show up as imbalances).

The diagnosis or check-up results in

  • identifying imbalances & weaknesses in organs
  • selecting meridians and points for treatment
  • selecting techniques and methods for treatment

There are three distinct types of treatment effects corresponding to the possible issues:

  • dispel pathogenic factors
  • remove blockages
  • regulate / balance energy levels

A treatment plan usually combines any number of these effects and reflects the interdependence of all parts of the energy system by treating not just the meridians directly corresponding with e.g. an unhealthy organ, but also points on other meridians that are connected with the 'target' in cause and effect. Which, for the western mind set, can sometimes be confusing: "You told me we need to increase my kidney yang. Why are you puncturing points on the lung meridian today?

In summary, the TCM approach does not only address symptoms but always works on the underlying causes. Which can be complex and even appear contradictory. Restoring health is not a matter of pills and shots, but a process of treatments and self-treatments (including potentially dietary regulations), which is conducted by the therapist and the patient together, with the patient taking on more and more responsibility for their own health as the process progresses and awareness grows.