A Comprehensive Guide To Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a system of medicine that has been used by the people of China for over 2000 years. It is based on a cosmological theory and incorporates naturalistic views of disease and therapy, as well as belief in spiritual beings and other factors which are common to most systems of holistic medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is currently one of the main forms of treatment used in China and is also now becoming popular throughout the world. It has been shown to be effective as part of a treatment plan with western medicine and recent research indicates that it is likely to become an alternative to drug therapy for many common ailments1.

One aim of this article will be to provide concise, accurate information on Traditional Chinese Medicine. However, the Chinese language has over 50,000 characters and most articles written in English on Traditional Chinese Medicine are at least 10 pages long. This article will only cover the basics which you can read in less than an hour.

Therefore this article is not intended to replace library research but rather be used as a starting point if you wish to know more about Traditional Chinese Medicine. The information in this article has been written by a team of experienced TCM practitioners and is supported by various references from reliable source materials for your reference if you wish to know more about the topics discussed2.

In addition, this article explains how to use acupuncture most effectively as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, which means that you can use TCM in conjunction with your western medical practitioners.

What is the history behind Traditional Chinese Medicine?

According to traditional thinking, almost 5 million years ago Qi Gong exercises were created by “Fuxi” (one of the three August Ones) along with herbal remedies for various diseases. These forms of therapy evolved into what we know today as “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. The first written records on medical treatment appeared during the Shang dynasty (about 1500 BC). However, it was not until 680 BC that the first written medical book appeared, called “Huangdi Neijing” (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine)3.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), expertise in herbs and acupuncture was shared with doctors from other countries. As a result, TCM spread throughout East Asia and by the Song dynasty (960-1279AD) it had become established as an important part of society. In fact, during that time period, many people learned herbal medicine to improve their social standing, which also created a tradition where most Chinese families would treat themselves using TCM at home.

In later years there was limited development because of invasions from Mongols and Manchurians who destroyed many books on Traditional Chinese Medicine.

There was a resurgence of interest and research into the area in the early 19th century and it became very popular by the end of that century. This led to new discoveries including acupuncture anesthesia (under Dr. W.A. Campbell during World War II), which then further propelled its acceptance as an important medical treatment system. In 1972 TCM was recognized as a national health care system, which today is used by most people living in China for both prevention and cure of disease.”4.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Model of the Body

While western medicine uses technology to investigate the body, TCM relies more on observation. For example, while CT scans and x-rays are used to investigate the body, TCM practitioners use their eyes to detect problems.

First, it is useful to understand what TCM means by the “body”. While western medicine tries to divide the body into parts such as the cardiovascular system and nervous system, TCM sees the body as one interconnected unit. The main idea behind TCM is that most problems with the body are due to an imbalance of Qi (pronounced “chee”). Related: A New TCM Treatment For Cellulite


Qi represents vital energy. TCM claims that it flows along 14 defined channels in the body (Meridians). The flow of Qi in these meridians connects important organs in the body together. Qi and blood complement each other and work together. Symptoms of an imbalance can occur if Qi is not flowing properly or if there isn’t enough Qi present5.

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang are the constructs by which TCM practitioners understand the disease. They represent opposing forces in nature; Yin is considered to be cooling, contracting, moistening, and calming while Yang is stimulating, expanding, warming, and exciting.

The construct of Yin-Yang explains how things work in harmony in nature (eg. night follows day). However, it also explains how imbalance occurs (eg. when there is too much heat or dryness in the body). TCM treatment aims to correct this imbalance by restoring harmony between Yin and Yang again in the body6.

Meridians & Channels

According to TCM theory, there are 14 major meridians through which “Qi” flows within the body connecting important organs together. If one of these meridians becomes blocked, Qi cannot flow properly to its associated organ and disease may occur.

Therefore TCM diagnosis aims to detect which meridians are not flowing correctly and how the problem can be corrected. One of the ways this is done is by detecting “blockages” or areas where there is an accumulation of Yang (or Yin) in the body via acupressure points. Because TCM treats the body as a whole, you will find many acupuncture points on non-acupuncture parts of the body because these areas are deemed important for conducting Qi along meridians7.

Body Constitutions

Similar to ayurvedic medicine, TCM has 9 body constitutions that describe the effects Qi imbalance will have on a person and to help in disease prevention and maintaining a healthy regimen8

1. Neutral type

Individuals have a robust body, a steady emotional or mental state, and an optimistic viewpoint. They frequently have a shiny complexion with hair that is lustrous, brilliant eyes, clean senses of smell and taste, red and wet lips, difficulty feeling tiredness, excellent sleep and hunger, typical bowel and urinary habits. They are resilient to environmental changes. 

2. Qi deficient type

Individuals are generally flabby and introverted, with timid personalities. They’re frequently suffering from a weak voice, shortness of breath, tiredness, catching a cold or flu easily, sweating, and teeth marks in the tongue margin. They are highly sensitive to changes in their environment. Due account to their low immunological functionings, illnesses take somewhat longer for individuals to recover from.

3. Yang deficient type

Individuals are generally soft, introverted, and quiet in personality. They frequently mention having cold hands and feet, a chilly sensation in their stomachs, sensitivity to low temperatures or sounds, drowsiness, discomfort after consuming cold food, and whitish and bloated tongues. In windy, cold, and humid conditions, they commonly feel unpleasant. Puffiness; diarrhea; and excessive throat secretions are all health issues that they are susceptible to.

4. Yin deficient type

Individuals are often thin in build, outspoken, and impulsive. They despise hot hands and feet, dry mouth, a stuffy nose, a preference for cold beverages, hard stools, or constipation. They become weary in hot and dry climates. Coughing is one of their most common problems. Related: A Guide To Gua Sha Stomach Benefits

5. Phlegm & dampness type

Individuals are usually overweight and have a belly, although they have a mild disposition and personality. They typically have an oily face, sticky or sweet taste in their mouths, profuse secretions from the mouth, perspiration on the brow, chest congestion, sweetness and grease preference, and a thick tongue coating. In humid or rainy climates, they frequently feel unwell. Diabetes mellitus type 2 or metabolic syndrome is possible; as well as heart illnesses.

6. Damp-heat type

Some people are overweight or underweight and tend to be irritable and short-tempered. They frequently have oily skin that erupts acne or pimples, a sour or strong taste in the mouth, tiredness or weight loss in the body, unfinished feeling after defecation or dry stools, yellow urine, excessive vaginal discharges in women, and wrinkled skin. They are sensitive to heat in the body, which can cause rashes or itchiness on the skin.

7. Blood stasis type

Individuals are often impatient and forgetful. They have a dull complexion, marks on the face, dark-red lips, black circles under their eyes, lusterless or rough skin, an unknown bruise on the body surface, and varicose veins. They are prone to bleedings, painful diseases, and aberrant growths in chilly environments.

8. Qi stagnation type

Individuals are usually thin, emotionally fragile, or paranoid. They’re frequently sad, nervous, fearful, and sighing frequently. Heart palpitations are typical. In the winter and fall, they are particularly prone to sleeplessness, sadness, anxiety disorder, and breast lumps. 

9. Special constitution type

Individuals are often born with inborn weaknesses that make them extremely sensitive to medications, foods, scents, pollen, or other environmental allergies. They frequently have runny noses, sneezing, wheezing, itching, and even purple spots or patches beneath the skin. Drug allergies, hay fever, eczema, and asthma are all common.

These individual characters combine to form a body constitution that determines how we live and behave and our susceptibility to pathogens and disease development.

As TCM emphasizes the mutual relationship between them when your body constitution is balanced and harmonious, you will be an energetic and healthy individual; but when it’s out of alignment or in disharmony with its environment, you’ll face potential harmful effects. This is particularly true during disease development9.

Types of Traditional Chinese Medicine Treatments

traditional acupuncture treatment

There are different treatments in TCM that have been developed based on its principle for thousands of years. Some use herbal medicines, acupuncture, acupressure, massages or Tui Na, exercise routines like tai chi or qigong, and dietary suggestions10.

Let’s first take a look at the treatments commonly used in TCM:

  1. Acupuncture – This is a traditional therapy using acupuncture needles to treat various types of pain. Accupuncture uses very fine, sterile, disposable needles which are inserted into the body at specific points. This is a painless procedure and can be done without the patient being fully aware of what is happening.
  2. Cupping – Cupping is a therapy that sucks tissues into tiny cups with vacuum pressure for circulation stimulation. Cupping can be used to treat muscle aches, back pain and cellulite. In addition, cupping can be used in conjunction with acupuncture for optimal results.
  3. Herbal Medicine – Chinese herbal medicine has been used for over 3,000 years and now there are more than 3,500 different forms available that are prescribed by doctors according to the individual’s physical condition
  4. Qi Gong – Qi Gong exercises help improve blood flow so they stimulate circulation and relax the nervous system, helping with stress relief. It is also a good way to strengthen and increase mobility of muscles and joints.
  5. Tai Chi/Meditation– Practiced alongside Qi Gong this helps reduce anxiety levels making it easier to sleep better at night. As well as this people who meditate regularly tend to have fewer health problems.
  6. Tui Na massage – Tui Na is a form of acupressure massage which uses the hands to detect and help treat problems with muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, and internal organs.
  7. Ear Acupuncture – A TCM doctor will insert acupuncture needles into specific points on the patient’s ear that are believed to stimulate specific organs or body parts.
  8. Qi Gong Therapy– Practiced alongside herbal medicine this helps reduce anxiety levels making it easier to sleep better at night. As well as this people who meditate regularly tend to have fewer health problems.
  9. Moxibustion – This therapy involves burning dried mugwort on particular meridians of the body where it is believed to help with energy flow, these are normally located near blood vessels or nerves, directly under the skin.

When utilizing a TCM expert, you can anticipate the following:

A professional TCM practitioner will identify your specific pattern of disharmony (imbalance) and provide an effective treatment based upon the latest scientific research.

You can expect to receive expert advice on prevention strategies, dietary recommendations, lifestyle changes that may help, dietary supplements or formulas to be taken along with your herbal medicine.

Depending on the patient’s requirements, modalities such as acupuncture, herbs, moxibustion, gua sha, cupping, Tui na, and diet adjustments can be applied.

In most cases, TCM treatments are very safe and can be used alongside conventional medicine.

How To Incorporate TCM Into Your Life:

MERIDIAN SYSTEM CHART – Female body with principal and centerline acupuncture meridians – anterior and posterior view – Traditional Chinese Medicine.

In TCM, a healthy life is one that is balanced, and preventative care takes precedence over therapeutic care. To live a long and disease-free life, TCM urges you to apply the following five branches of treatment: acupuncture, herbs, Tuina or therapeutic massage, energetics, and exercise such as qigong or taichi, as well as dietary therapy.

Acupuncture – add acupuncture regularly to your routine. This can be done by simply adding acupuncture to your spa visit or making it part of your weekly health care routine alongside massage and other therapies.

Herbs – make sure you are taking herbs to help your body constitution regularly, whether in the form of teas, tonics, supplements, capsules, powders, or topical remedies.

Qi Gong– try adding qi gong into your life either through practicing on your own at home or attending classes locally.

Energetics– keep an eye on what you eat! TCM believes that everything you put into your mouth should be fresh and wholesome with strong vital energy (qi). Be mindful of how you cook food so as not to spoil or deplete its essence completely.

Diet Therapy– be mindful of your diet. Believe it or not, TCM believes that health starts in the gut so if you are unwell, check what you are eating first! If everything seems to be okay then consider seeing a TCM practitioner for further advice.