What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

10 min
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Imagine that you are lying on a massage table, with a therapist preparing some needles in front of you. As they come closer to you and prick the first needle into your skin, you may be expecting pain. More needles are placed onto your hands, feet, back, and the rest of your body. To the unfamiliar, it can sound pretty scary ー but to those in the know, the sensation that comes right afterwards is not pain, but pleasure and deep relaxation. The tension in your muscles releases, and the tight feeling that was causing you pain in your back and your legs, or giving you headaches, starts to go away. This therapy is called acupuncture, and it’s one of the oldest practices from an Eastern medical system known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  

TCM originates in China and has been developed and evolved over the past 3,000 years. This unique approach to viewing medicine and wellness is based heavily on Chinese philosophy, and uses the wisdom of many ancient Eastern practices. It is believed that the applications of TCM are wide-ranging, and that each practice can lead to various health benefits. TCM has been known to help relieve pain, treat chronic illness, and promote health and wellness. 

What are the differences between TCM and Western medicine? How do the practices work, and how effective are they? Read on to learn about the history and theories behind TCM and its seven most common modalities.

The Roots of TCM

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic medical system that has been used and developed in China over thousands of years, with the goal of preventing, diagnosing and treating health issues. Before diving into the practices of TCM, it’s important to first understand its philosophical basis: TCM is based heavily around the belief that there is something called “Qi” flowing through the body, and that this is what keeps a person healthy. 

What Is Qi?

Qi(氣)is an essential concept in Chinese culture and TCM. Since the times of ancient China, TCM practitioners believed that human life is bound to the power of Qi. They believed that the physical body is not as important as we may think, and that the essence of our life stems from Qi一and that when a person physically passes away, they will return to Qi. So what exactly is Qi? There are many ways to understand and interpret the concept. Although Qi cannot be directly translated into English, it is often roughly translated into words such as “vital energy,” “life force,” and “bioelectric energy.” Simply put, Qi can be understood as a life force encompassing the human spirit and energy. 

The concept of Qi is important in TCM because TCM believes that illnesses are caused by an imbalanced Qi, in which it cannot flow properly through the body. TCM also postulates that when Qi is weak and imbalanced, the body is more likely to be infected by external pathogens. Qi serves several functions in the body: for one, it helps to warm-up and cool down the body, allowing the body to exist comfortably at an optimal temperature. Qi is believed to be a powerful life force that can hold the organs in place, keep the blood inside the vessels, and convert food and air into energy. 

TCM views Qi as the life force that prevents diseases and promotes health: The key to health is to maintain a balanced Qi. A healthy and balanced Qi can make a person energetic and have a stronger immune system that protects the body in many ways. However, individuals with unhealthy and imbalanced Qi will suffer from low energy and a weak immune system, increasing their risk of getting infected by viruses and other illnesses.

What Are the 5 Elements in TCM?

TCM posits that Qi flows through five channels in the body, which can be explained by the five elements theory. Practitioners believe that there are five elements that make up the building blocks of the universe, and that Qi ー the life force ー flows between them. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The theory suggests that these elements are all interrelated. 

From a TCM perspective, to be healthy means having a balanced Qi in each of these channels in the body. Seeking a balance of all elements thus becomes essential to one's health. For instance, too much water will not be good for one’s health, as it can lead to flooding. Likewise, excessive earth is also unhealthy as it will cause problems like soil erosion.

Five Elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine

You may now wonder how natural disasters like flooding and soil erosion can affect your health. The five elements are actually metaphors for different body parts. In TCM, if someone has excessive fire within them, they might have some heart issues. If someone has too little metal, they tend to have problems with the lungs, such as shortness of breath. 

The five elements are connected to different organs as outlined below:

  • Wood: Liver, gallbladder, tendons, eyes
  • Fire: Heart, tongue, pulse
  • Earth: Spleen, stomach, mouth, muscles
  • Metal: Lungs, nose, skin
  • Water: Kidneys, ears, bones

TCM suggests that maintaining a balance between the five elements can lead to a healthy life. However, an imbalance of these elements can harm the body. The key to achieving a harmonious and healthy life is to seek a balanced Qi across them all, and TCM practices were created to help people to maintain that balance.

7 Common Practices in TCM

There are numerous practices in TCM intended to help strengthen one’s Qi一and many of these techniques are also used to treat modern health issues. 

Acupuncture in Traditional Chinese Medicine

1. Acupuncture

Western contemporary medicine often uses needles in injections to deliver medications. But did you know that TCM also uses needles for medical purposes? Acupuncture is a TCM practice that involves pricking the skin and tissue with fine needles. It aims to restore the flow of Qi by prodding “acupuncture points” ー specific points in the body that are made up of a lot of nerves. 

TCM believes that these acupuncture points are closely connected to body parts that are essential to one's health, including those that affect the immune system and the lymphatic system. Acupuncture can serve a range of benefits for the body. It can activate the natural release of feel-good chemicals, which can reduce pain. It is also believed that acupuncture can help to boost circulation and loosen tightened areas in the body, which is beneficial for relaxing and calming the nervous system.


2. Moxibustion

This technique relies on a similar approach to acupuncture, but rather than using fine needles, it uses the burning of moxa ー a type of herb. TCM therapists roll this herb into a long and large cigarette-shaped object, through which to burn the dried moxa. After igniting the “cigarette”, the therapist will hold it above the body’s acupuncture points. Moxibustion is also known as the tip technique in TCM. 

While regular cigarettes are harmful to your health, this version carries a lot of health benefits. Moxibustion helps to tonify the body, replenishing and balancing Qi. This TCM technique tends to bring heat into the body, and as a result, it can be helpful for people who have cold bodies. Moxibustion also enhances Qi circulation. People who often feel tired and weak might also benefit from this modality.


3. Chinese Herbs

Chinese herbs or herbal remedies are often used as a type of medicine. Chinese herbs are usually grown on hills and then collected by factories that produce TCM products, to be sold in shops that sell TCM medicines. There are various types of herbs, and each serves various different purposes. Below are two popular herbs:

  • Red Ling Zhi(赤靈芝): Also known as reishi, this is a plant from the mushroom family and is a type of fungus. It is said to help boost the immune system, enhance metabolism, and strengthen the body. Red Ling Zhi is often used for people who feel fatigued. 
  • Chen Pi(陳皮): This traditional medicine is comprised of sun-dried mandarin peel, and its name literally means “aged orange peel” in English. The citrus fruit is believed to be able to give Qi to the lung. Many practitioners believe that the longer its history, the more effective it becomes, and the peel is usually aged for at least three years. It is said to help strengthen the lungs and reduce phlegm, helping with issues such as chronic coughing, as well as helping with digestion, fortifying the spleen, and eliminating dampness. It is also often used in conjunction with heart-related disharmony.

Chinese herbs are often served in the form of tea or soup. They can be cut into smaller pieces for cooking, or ground into powder or granules that can be dissolved as hot water and drunk. Oftentimes, these herbs are served as a floral or flowering tea along with a combination of different herbs, intended to serve various functions at once. 

Tui Na Massage

4. Tui Na Massage

Tui Na(推拿) is a therapeutic type of massage that originated in ancient China. “Tui” means “to push,” and “Na” refers to lifting and squeezing. Tui Na is an Asian style of bodywork wherein massage therapists use their arms and hands to push and squeeze the body. Tui Na massage is based on a similar concept to acupuncture, namely that it tries to solve health issues that have been caused by a blocked flow of Qi. By massaging “acupuncture points” 一 points on the body that are connected to organs 一 it aims to restore Qi, thereby releasing its therapeutic effects. There are different Tui Na techniques, and each has its own unique function. Below are two common ones: 

  • Rolling Method: In this method, the massage therapist will roll their hands on the body. It is aimed to relax the body and improve blood circulation. 
  • Finger Springing: In this method, the massage therapists will use their fingers to create wave patterns on acupuncture points. This is typically used to massage more specific areas and smaller muscles of the body. 

Tui Na massage has also been found to help treat musculoskeletal issues, or injuries that affect the muscles, nerves, and joints. Tui Na can also help to promote relaxation.

TCM Exercises

5. TCM Exercises

The two most common exercises in TCM are Qi Gong and Tai Chi. “Qi Gong(氣功)” actually means “Qi Practice” in English. It is a form of exercise that aims to find the tranquility in Qi, softening the body through movements done in a meditative manner. Qi Gong also helps to circulate the Qi, which can cause internal harmony. Another popular TCM exercise is “Tai Chi(太極)” 一 an Eastern practice that originated from the Wudang mountain in China. Tai Chi involves intense physical exercise and stretching, both of which keep one’s body moving in a constant flow. 

In TCM, exercise is considered just as important to one’s health as it is in a Western health practice. While Qi Gong and Tai Chi might seem similar at first, Qi Gong is usually more easily accessible and gentle for beginners. Tai Chi tends to involve more complex movements and contains some martial arts applications, so it tends to be more challenging to pick up. The goals of both are to enhance and balance Qi, and in doing so, bring about more health benefits. 

TCM Nutrition

6. TCM Nutrition

TCM practitioners suggest that what we eat will affect Qi, and that the key to health is to choose what we eat wisely depending on the weather. In Chinese culture, people categorize foods into two categories; namely, "cooling foods" and "heating foods." "Cooling food" generally consists of green vegetables and fruits, which can cool down the body. "Heating food" tend to be spicy and hot, such as meats, or spices such as chili and cinnamon. 

TCM hypothesizes that eating "cooling foods" will reduce Qi, so people should avoid eating them in the winter. Likewise, "heating foods" tend to increase Qi, and as a result, it is better to avoid eating them in the summer. It is believed that if someone is eating too much heating food, they will experience a range of physical and emotional reactions such as fever, bad temper, and emotional instability. For this reason, it is important to maintain a balanced diet, striking the right equilibrium in body temperature through the use of these foods.

Cupping and Scraping

7. Cupping and Scraping

Cupping and scraping treatments both involve the TCM practitioner applying suction to the body’s acupuncture points using specially-designed cups. These cups are usually made of glass and come in various sizes. The size of cup used will depend on the health issue being treated. There are many techniques used in delivering cupping and scraping therapy. The stationary cupping technique, for instance, involves leaving a lot of cups on the body for five to 10 minutes. Flash cupping is a quick process, in which the TCM therapist removes a cup from the client’s body rapidly after having placed it on the skin. Cupping and scraping is said to help to stretch and detoxify the body, and boost muscle relaxation. It is believed that these techniques can improve Qi circulation, and are best-suited for treating muscle problems and relieving stress and anxiety. 

Pros and Cons of TCM

Pros of TCM

  • Highly Customizable: Most TCM practices are centered around strengthening and balancing Qi. There is a wide variety of modalities people can choose from to enhance their Qi and deal with their ailment. Depending on what they prefer, one may choose to use acupuncture or opt for Qi Gong to regulate their Qi. As a result, TCM is highly customizable, and it’s easy to choose a practice that you enjoy more, among the many options that lead you to the same goal. Herbal medicine is equally customizable, with plenty of different herbs to choose from, and countless different ways to use them, from taking them in the form of teas or soups, or even adding them into your meals. 
  • Fewer Side Effects: Since the medications used in TCM are usually composed of natural ingredients such as herbs and fruits that are very closely related to their most wholesome form, they tend to have fewer side-effects than Western chemicals, which typically contain a number of additional chemicals. Many TCM medicines are used as preventative care versus only being used for targeted treatment. TCM medicines are also intended to be suitable for long-term use, as something one can incorporate into their regular lifestyle routine, rather than simply as a short-term treatment plan. 

Cons of TCM

  • Lack of Scientific Evidence: Unlike Western medicine, many concepts of TCM are based on the Chinese philosophy of Qi and the five elements theory. However, these concepts may be challenged as being too vague, and there has not yet been scientific evidence found to support these ideas. Where Western medicine is able to use precision instruments such as microscopes to offer evidence-based findings in discovering the causes of specific health issues, there is no scientific system available for measuring Qi. TCM also does not typically use health trackers to provide numerical data to measure the status of different functions in the human body.
  •  It Takes Time To Heal: TCM practices tend to be most effective when one commits to the therapy or medications for a longer period of time. The body often needs time to respond to these practices, and it can take a relatively long time to increase and enhance one’s Qi. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing 一 in some ways, this is a boon over Western medicine as this longevity means that TCM can be more easily incorporated into one’s lifestyle as a long-term health practice to boost one’s immune system and decrease one’s overall risk of illness. However, this also means that TCM is not quite as effective when treating medical emergencies, such as bleeding, heart attacks, and breathing difficulties. Where Western medicine may intervene with surgery or other emergency procedures, TCM may not be able to help with conditions that require urgent medical care.

TCM vs Western Medicine

Although TCM has been used for centuries in China and East Asia, it is still not yet fully understood by health professionals outside of the Eastern parts of the world. As a result, some Western medical experts question the effectiveness of TCM. This is mainly because TCM is an experience-based medical system rather than one that relies on scientific evidence. As a result, it can be challenging for researchers to collect data to analyze its effectiveness.

Another common hindrance in introducing TCM to contemporary Western medicine is the language barrier, and the vast difference in the procedures used for diagnosing health issues. With many TCM concepts such as Qi and the five elements being so heavily based on Chinese philosophy, it can be difficult to directly translate them into English or other languages. As a result, health professionals from other parts of the world can find it hard to interpret the meanings of the foundation behind TCM. 

Despite these barriers between Eastern and Western medical systems, TCM offers a unique yet inspiring perspective through which to view medicine, and suggests a philosophical and holistic approach to understanding health and wellness that has been helpful to many people around the world.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Traditional Chinese Medicine; Behold the Power of Qi: The Importance of Qi in the Discourse of Acupuncture; The Five Elements: What Science Has to Say About This Chinese Medicine Theory; Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Overview; Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion; Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine; Everything You Need To Know About Reishi Mushrooms; Chen Pi health benefits- Chinese herbal supplement and Dietary Supplements; Effects of Acupuncture, Tuina, Tai Chi, Qigong, and Traditional Chinese Medicine Five-Element Music Therapy on Symptom Management and Quality of Life for Cancer Patients: A Meta-Analysis; Qigong for Mental Health: Mixed Findings; The Health Benefits of Tai Chi; The Energy of Foods in Chinese Medicine; Warming And Cooling Characteristics of Common Foods; What Is Cupping Therapy?; The Five Elements; What Is Qi? (and Other Concepts); Traditional Chinese Medicine and Kampo: A Review from the Distant past for the Future; 10 Benefits of Chinese Tuina Massage.

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