Chinese traditional medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient and still very vital holistic system of health and healing, based on the notion of harmony and balance, and employing the ideas of moderation and prevention.

TCM is a complete system of health care with its own unique theories of anatomy, health, and treatment. It emphasizes diet and prevention and using acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, and exercise, and focuses on stimulating thebody's natural curative powers.

TCM should not be substituted for contemporary modern trauma practice; it ismost useful as an adjunct to the healing regimen. Nor is TCM the first line of treatment for bacterial infection or cancer, but may usefully complement contemporary medical treatment for those conditions.

In theory and practice, TCM is completely different from western medicine both in terms of considering how the human body works and how illness occurs andshould be treated. As a part of a continuing system that has been in use forthousands of years, it is still employed to treat over one quarter of the world's population. Since the earliest Chinese physicians were also philosophers, their ways of viewing the world and man's role in it affected their medicine. In TCM, both philosophically and medically, moderation in all things is advocated, as is living in harmony with nature and striving for balance in allthings. Prevention is also a key goal of Chinese medicine, and much emphasisis placed on educating the patient to live responsibly. The Chinese physician also is more of an advisor than an authority; he or she believes in treating every patient differently based on the notion that one does not treat the disease or condition but rather the individual patient. Thus two people with the same complaint may be treated entirely differently, if their constitutionsand life situations are dissimilar. Disease is considered to be evidence ofthe failure of preventive health care and a falling out of balance or harmony.

There is some confusion in the West about the fundamental philosophical principles upon which traditional Chinese medicine is based--such as the concept of yin and yang, the notion of five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), and the concept of chi--yet each can be explained in a way thatis understandable to Westerners.

Yin and yang describe the interdependent relationship of opposing but complementary forces believed to be necessary for a healthy life. Basically, the goal is to maintain a balance of yin and yang in all things.

The five elements, or five-phase theory, is also grounded in the notion of harmony and balance. The concept of chi which means something like "lifeforce" or "energy," is perhaps most different from western ideas, and asserts that chi is an invisible energy force that flows freely in a healthyperson, but is weakened or blocked when a person is ill. Specifically, the illness is a result of the blockage, rather than the blockage being the resultof the illness.

Besides these philosophical concepts that differ considerably from infection-based principles of medicine and health, the methods employed by traditionalChinese medicine are also quite different. If mainstream western practitioners could be described as interventionist (doing something to actively treat adisease) and dependent on synthetic pharmaceuticals, TCM methods are mostly natural and noninvasive. For example, where western physicians might employ surgery and chemotherapy or radiation for a cancer patient, a TCM physician might use acupuncture and dietary changes. TCM believes in "curing the root" ofa disease and not merely in treating its symptoms.

Another major difference is how the patient is regarded. In western medicine,patients with similar complaints or diseases usually will receive virtuallythe same treatment. In TCM, however, the physician treats the patient and notthe condition, believing that identical diseases can have entirely differentcauses.

During a consultation with a TCM practitioner, the patient will receive a considerable amount of time and attention. During the important first visit, thepractitioner will conduct four types of examinations, all extremely observational and all quite different from what patients usually experience.

First the practitioner will ask many questions, going beyond the typical patient history to inquire about such particulars as eating and bowel habits or sleep patterns. Next, the physician looks at the patient, observing his or hercomplexion and eyes, while also closely examining the tongue. (The tongue isbelieved to be a barometer of the body's health, and different areas of thetongue can reflect the functioning of different body organs.) After observing, the physician listens to the patient's voice or cough and then smells his or her breath, body odor, urine, and even bowel movements. Finally, the practitioner touches the patient, palpating his or her abdomen and feeling the wrist to take up to six different pulses. It is through these different pulses that the well-trained practitioner can diagnose any problem with the flow of the all-important chi. Altogether, this essentially observational examination will lead the physician to diagnose or decide the patient's problem. This diagnosis is very different from one in contemporary western medicine. Noblood or urine samples are tested in a laboratory. The key to this techniquelies in the experience and skill of the practitioner.

After making a diagnosis, the physician will suggest a course of treatment from one or all of the available TCM methods. These fall into four main categories: herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy, and massage and exercise.A typical TCM prescription consists of a complex variety of many different herbal and mineral ingredients. Chinese herbal remedies are intended to assistthe body's own systems so that eventually the patient can stop taking them and never becomes dependent on them. Herbal formulas are usually given as teas, which differ according to the patient.

Traditional Chinese medicine seeks to harmonize and rebalance the entire human system rather than to treat just symptoms. Since proper internal balance isconsidered to be the key to human health, TCM strives to cure disease by restoring that balance and therefore allowing the body to repair itself. Its continuing medical goal is to detect and correct abnormalities before they causepermanent physical damage.

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