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Traditional Chinese Medicine

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Image of pills on a herbal leafAccording to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), all ill-health is viewed as an energy imbalance, while optimal health is a state of perfect balance, often symbolized by the yin–yang image. The aim of any therapy must be to restore the balance or to prevent any imbalance in the first place. For this purpose, TCM offers a range of treatments, including herbal mixtures, acupuncture, cupping, massage and diet. All conditions are said to be treatable with TCM.

A TCM consultation will involve diagnostic techniques, such as tongue and pulse diagnoses. Although these techniques are also part of conventional medicine, TCM practitioners make unreasonably ambitious claims about their diagnostic power. Treatment will be tailored to the individual. One session would typically last 30–60 minutes, and treatment can be long-term, if not for life.

What is the Evidence?

The TCM system is complex and not easy to evaluate. Thus its various elements are usually tested separately. Chinese herbal medicines usually contain a multitude of herbs which are individualized according to the specific needs of every patient. This approach has recently been tested in cancer patients and shown to be no better than placebo in alleviating symptoms. In another study, Chinese herbal medicine was tested in patients with irritable bowel syndrome against a standardized herbal prescription and against a placebo. The results suggested that individualized treatment is better than placebo in controlling symptoms, but not better than a standardized herbal medicine.

Some individual herbs used in TCM (e.g. liquorice, ginger, ginkgo) undoubtedly have pharmacological effects; some have even provided the blueprint for modern drugs. On the other hand, some Chinese herbal medicines are toxic (Aristolochia) and others may interact with prescription drugs. Chinese ‘herbal’ preparations may also contain non-herbal ingredients (e.g. endangered animal species), contaminants (e.g. heavy metals) or adulterants (e.g. steroids).

As you can see, TCM is difficult to evaluate. Some elements may be effective for some conditions, while other elements (e.g. cupping) are unlikely to offer any benefit above placebo.

For More Information:

This extract is taken from “Trick or Treatment?” (Transworld), a book that contains a series of 1-page summaries looking at the evidence for and against a range of alternative therapies. The authors of the book are Simon Singh (founder of the Good Thinking Society) and Edzard Ernst (the world’s first professor of complementary medicine