What is TCM?
TCM as it is taught in colleges and universities throughout the world is the modern systematisation of a number of the central strands of Chinese traditional medicine fomented in ancient times. The most well known of these are the Yin Yang theories, the appreciation of meridians and Qi, and the Five Phases (sometimes known as the 5 Elements).
These strands have been integrated into a coherent theoretical body which forms the basis of the practise of Chinese medicine. TCM theory can therefore be used to assess a patient, form a diagnosis and then to use the diagnosis to direct treatment in the form of acupuncture, herbal administration, dietary changes, massage and lifestyle advice.
Because of the philosophical and practical versatility of TCM's core concepts, such as Yin Yang theory, these principles can be extended into an appreciation of all aspects of life. Therefore there is extensive common ground between TCM practise and other Oriental traditions and cultural pursuits such as Tai Chi and traditional Chinese cuisine in its different forms.
Core concepts of TCM
The concept of Qi can be variously translated as motivating energy, vitality or essential influences. It is ultimately a term that defines a set of cultural ideas that are best pictured rather than literally described. Within TCM, Qi flows within a series of channels in the body, some deep, some superficial (the meridians). When the Qi flows smoothly and strongly there is health. When the flow of Qi is blocked or Qi is insufficient to flow effectively (like a stagnant and depleted stream) then illness arises. A TCM practitioner's job is to clear the blockage where it arises and to nourish Qi where it is deficient.
Yin Yang theory describes opposite and complementary qualities that are found to some degree in everything in the universe. Yin therefore corresponds with female, nurturing, dense and slow types of quality, whilst Yang corresponds to activity, motion, lightness and heat among other things. A simple interaction of Yin and Yang is a candle. The body of the candle is Yin; without it, the flame, Yang, cannot exist. But without the flame, the body of the candle, Yin, cannot provide warmth and light, Yang. Yin and Yang therefore depend on each other for existence and function. Where Yin and Yang are balanced, there is health. In TCM therefore, the practitioner will assess the imbalance of Yin and Yang in your being and then employ the appropriate methods to redress this balance.
Five Phases (Wu Xing)
The Five Phases describe the qualities of five phases of being. These are translated as Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Because of the inherent dynamism of these concepts they are not elemental as some people sometimes mistakenly describe them. When all five phases are in balance, health and harmony arise. A TCM practitioner may assess the imbalances in patients five phases and choose to redress them as part of a treatment strategy.
The Origin of Illness
TCM therefore provides a very sensitive framework for assessing a person's state of being. Thus the origin and perpetuation of illness is also clearly understood, in ways that most other forms of medicine fail to grasp. After all, well live in an age where our own traditional medicine has only just officially recognised the relationship between overeating, lack of exercise and obesity! This is of course common sense. TCM however gives the opportunity to effectively describe the relationships between emotional states such as anxiety, stress, anger, fear or grief, poor nutrition, weather conditions, hereditary factors, infections, poisons or other physical trauma and illness.
What can TCM treat?
Because of its inherent versatility, TCM can have a role in the treatment of any illness. After all, anything is diagnosable within TCM. This is not to say however that TCM treatment invariably provides a cure. Its role can be palliative. A good example is in cancer treatment. The conventional approaches to these illnesses are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and this may be sensible. In addition however, TCM treatment and advice can be used to alleviate the often dramatic side effects of such treatment. Classic areas where TCM is effective in its own right are most musculo-skeletal contitions (back pain, arthritis, trauma etc.), digestive disorders, many gynaecological disorders including PMS, menopause and period pain, infertility and anxiety and depression. In addition, because TCM addresses the underlying causes of illness, many people also notice increased energy levels, better appetite and improved sleep as a result of treatment. It should be stressed that TCM is highly effective in the treatment of the consequences of stroke. I stress this because the sooner after the stroke a patient receives treatment, the better the results tend to be.
© George Cooper/Katherine Allen 2008