Traditional Chinese Medicine

On July 26th, 1971, James Reston published a groundbreaking article in the New York Times entitled, “Now, About My Operation in Peking”.  The article describes his experience receiving acupuncture and herbal preparations as adjunctives for pain relief after having his appendix removed at a hospital in China.  At the time, little was known in the United States about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Reston’s article struck many readers as sensational and shocking.  People were astounded that peppering the skin with tiny needles at precise acupuncture points could contribute significantly to pain relief, but this thousands-of-years-old practice has since been shown to be quite effective even in rigorous randomized clinical trials conducted in the United States and Europe.

Reston’s article sparked a great deal of interest in the American clinical research community, and since 1971 a number of randomized clinical trials have been conducted to explore the effectiveness of TCM.  Acupuncture is probably the CAM modality that has been best-researched and is most-supported by the scientific literature, but it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the numerous procedures utilized in TCM.  The first written records of TCM appeared roughly 2,000 years ago, and it is believed that some elements go back as far as 5,000 years.  TCM includes Herbal Medicine (over 2,000 herbs are used), Acupuncture, Moxibustion, Cupping, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and Meditation.

The underlying principles of TCM are entirely different than those of conventional western medicine.  TCM is based around the idea that “Qi” (a vital energy or life force) constantly flows through the body and that disease results from disturbances this flow.  In addition to the critical balance of Qi, there are five elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Wood, Metal) and two opposing forces (Yin and Yang) that must also be in equilibrium for the body to maintain healthy functioning.  The discipline is focused around these concepts of harmony and balance, and might sound a little strange to anyone accustomed to the reductionist discussion of physiology that predominates in the United States.

Interestingly though, what we call “conventional medicine” in the U.S. is the only complete system of medicine in existence that lacks any conceptualization of the body’s vital energy or Qi.  In modern China, TCM and western medicine are practiced side by side.  It is recognized that each system has different strengths and weaknesses and that optimum care can be attained by utilizing the best of both, based on the individual needs of the patient.

As always, one important thing to keep in mind if you’re seeking a CAM practitioner in the U.S. is licensing.  Acupuncture is licensed in most states, however TCM licensing varies from state to state (see TCM Central: State Laws and Licensing Regulations to find out the status of your state).  The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) is federally recognized and is responsible for accreditation of acupuncture and TCM schools.  The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) is an additional certification system, and most states require practitioners to pass NCCAOM’s national written exam (and sometimes also a practical exam).  Many TCM remedies are herbal and it is critical to remember that herbs can be dangerous, either by themselves or due to interactions with other herbs, pharmaceuticals, or foods.  Consult a licensed healthcare practitioner prior to taking any herbal preparations.  Additionally keep in mind that FDA regulations are much less strict on dietary supplements than on pharmaceuticals in terms of safety and efficacy testing.  Make sure you get any dietary supplements from a reputable source, consult a healthcare practitioner, and do your own research on safety and efficacy prior to use.


DISCLAIMER:   This article is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice.  You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making decisions about therapies and/or health conditions.



1.  National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction

2.  Natural Standard Bottom Line Monograph: Traditional Chinese Medicine *Please note that this resource is available only by subscription.

3. Reston, James, “Now, About My Operation in Peking”, The New York Times, July 26, 1971

4.  TCM Central: State Laws and Licensing Regulations

5.  Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Fourth Edition by Marc S. Micozzi for more detailed information (Ch. 26).  Published by Saunders Elsevier, St. Louis, Missouri 2011.

6.  Integrative Medicine Second Edition by David Rakel for more detailed information on usage for specific conditions.  Copyright 2007, 2003 by Elsevier Inc.  Published by Saunders Elsevier, Philadelphia, PA 2007.


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