When thinking about Chinese medicine, most people are familiar with acupuncture but don't realize that acupuncture is just one part of a unified, holistic system of medicine, developed in China five to seven thousand years ago.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the oldest continuously practiced medical system in the world and is used by one third of the world's population as a primary health care system. It is likely that more people have been treated by Chinese medicine throughout history than by any other formalized system of medicine. Because of its relatively low cost and minimal side effects, acupuncture has become a highly popular method of health care in the United States.

Traditional Chinese Medicine's origins are found in the shamanic, folk medicine of Bronze Age China. Over many millennia, this remarkable medical system gradually developed and grew more sophisticated. Today, TCM is practiced in hospitals throughout China and is used by billions of Asians [History of Chinese Medicine]. Since its introduction in 1970, Chinese medicine has quickly become popular in western, industrialized nations such as France, Germany, England and the United States. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) reports, "Acupuncture has been used by millions of American patients . . . for relief or prevention of pain and for a variety of health conditions." [1]

What is Acupuncture and TCM?

Acupuncture refers to the use of hair-thin needles inserted in specific places throughout the body, called acupuncture points. The needles stimulate your body's Qi (a Chinese word, pronounced 'chee') or energy. Though its mechanism is not well understood in western, scientific terms, we know that acupuncture stimulates the body's immune system and releases neurotransmitters (endorphins) to resolve pain and disease.

Acupuncture is only one part of the much larger TCM system of healthcare. Traditional Chinese Medicine is an umbrella term describing a comprehensive medical system that includes a number of different modalities such as acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, Tui Na massage, Chinese dietary therapy and meditative exercises called Qi Gong and Tai Qi. Depending upon the presenting symptoms, the TCM physician (acupuncturist) will develop a treatment plan by combining several of these modalities to work together synergistically to treat the patient's condition.

TCM's Unique Method: Pattern Diagnosis

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Chinese medicine that accounts for its remarkable clinical effectiveness is TCM's diagnostic method called 'pattern diagnosis'. Chinese medicine sees that every patient presents with a unique constitutional landscape, or pattern. Disease processes vary from person to person, depending on their particular constitutional pattern of disharmony. Even though ten patients may present with the same disease, say a headache, the symptomatology will vary from person to person depending on their individual, constitutional pattern. Therefore each patient will get a vastly different TCM treatment that addresses his/her particular pattern or constellation of symptoms.[2]

Let's illustrate this idea using headaches as an example: some patients will present with throbbing pain on the temples, caused by stress. Others will present with an achy feeling on the forehead that is aggravated by damp weather. Still others will report excruciating, migraine pain, seeing auras and worsened with light or loud noises.

Conventional medicine will treat all of these headaches in pretty much the same manner: offering various strengths of pain relieving drugs until a high enough dosage is achieved to block the pain, using narcotics (such as morphine) when necessary. This remedy doesn't actually treat the disease; it only offers temporary relief of pain while the drug is circulating through the body. Without the medication the pain returns, in an endless cycle that potentially can lead to drug addition.

By contrast, Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses each patient differently, depending on the individual, constitution patterns involved. Because the symptoms of the disease are varied with each patient, the treatment approach is accordingly individualized. This means that the acupuncture points and herbs are used to treat the stress-induced headache will be different than those used to treat the migraine or the 'damp' headache (worse in rainy weather). Rather than simply addressing or masking the offending symptom the patient complains of, Chinese medicine goes further to treat the root cause of the disorder that produces the symptom. In doing so, a clinical cure is generally achieved in a single course of treatment for most conditions (ten to twelve visits), at which time acupuncture and herbs can be withdrawn without exacerbation of symptoms.[3]

[1] Acupuncture: NIH Consens Statement 1997 Nov 3-5; 15(5): 7-14.

[2] Those familiar with the concept of 'doshas' in ayurvedic medicine will recognize this method of diagnosis by individual, constitutional patterns.

[3] Chronic conditions that have persisted for years, such as allergy related problems, often take several courses of treatment to affect a clinical cure. But given continue care these conditions generally resolve satisfactorily. At minimum, patients notice a dramatic decrease in symptoms and increased quality of life. Depending on the nature of the disease, continued acupuncture treatments may be necessary on a maintenance basis.

Chinese medicine is holistic in nature: it treats the whole or entirety of the individual. In this way, Chinese medicine addresses all aspects of the human being: the physical, the emotional and the spiritual: all considered to be affected by the disease process and thus are included in the treatment. This all-inclusive approach leads to more comprehensive healing and a sense of well being. It encourages the patient to become an active participant in her/his healing process.