An ancient practice developed thousands of years ago and still used by millions of people all over the world, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has undoubtedly played a role in the field of medicine. But just what is TCM? Is it effective? And can it ever be integrated with Western medicine?

The techniques of TCM stem from the beliefs upon which it was founded. The theory of the yin and yang balance holds that all things in the universe are composed of a balance between the forces of yin and yang. While yin is generally associated with objects that are dark, still, and cold, yang is associated with items that are bright, warm, and in motion.1 In TCM, illness is believed to be a result of an imbalance of yin or yang in the body. For instance, when yin does not cool yang, yang rises and headaches, flushing, sore eyes, and sore throats result. When yang does not warm yin, poor circulation of blood, lethargy, pallor, and cold limbs result. TCM aims to determine the nature of the disharmony and correct it through a variety of approaches. As the balance is restored in the body, so is the health.2

Another fundamental concept of TCM is the idea of qi, which is the energy or vital force responsible for controlling the functions of the human mind and body. Qi flows through the body through 12 meridians, or channels, that correspond to the 12 major organ systems, and 8 extra meridians that are all interconnected with the major channels. Just like an imbalance between yin and yang, disruption to the flow causes disease, and correction of the flow restores the body to balance.2 In TCM, disease is not viewed as something that a patient has. Rather, it is something that the patient is. There is no isolated entity called “disease,” but only a whole person whose body functions may be balanced or imbalanced, harmonious or disharmonious.3 Thus, TCM practitioners aim to increase or decrease qi in the body to create a healthy yin-yang balance through various techniques such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutrition, and mind/body exercise (tai chi, yoga). Eastern treatments are dismissed by some as superfluous to the recovery process and even harmful if used in place of more conventional treatments. However, evidence exists indicating Eastern treatments can be very effective parts of recovery plans.

The most common TCM treatments are acupuncture, which involves inserting needles at precise meridian points, and herbal medicine, which refers to using plant products (seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers) for medicinal purposes. Acupuncture seeks to improve the body’s functions by stimulating specific anatomic sites—commonly referred to as acupuncture points, or acupoints. It releases the blocked qi in the body, which may be causing pain, lack of function, or illness. Although the effects of acupuncture are still being researched, results from several studies suggest that it can stimulate function in the body and induce its natural healing response through various physiological systems.4 According to the WHO (World Health Organization), acupuncture is effective for treating 28 conditions, while limited but probable evidence suggests it may have an effective value for many more. Acupuncture seems to have gained the most clinical acceptance as a pain reduction therapy. Research from an international team of experts pooled the results of 29 studies on chronic pain involving nearly 18,000 participants—some had acupuncture, some had “sham” acupuncture, and some did not have acupuncture at all. Overall, the study found acupuncture treatments to be superior to both a lack of acupuncture treatment and sham acupuncture treatments for the reduction of chronic pain, suggesting that such treatments are a reasonable option for afflicted patients.5 According to a study carried out at the Technical University of Munich, people with tension headaches and/or migraines may find acupuncture to be very effective in alleviating their symptoms.6 Another study at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center found that twice weekly acupuncture treatments relieved debilitating symptoms of xerostomia--severe dry mouth--among patients undergoing radiation for head and neck cancer.7 Additionally, acupuncture has been demonstrated to both enhance performance in the memory-related brain regions of mild cognitive impairment patients (who have an increased risk of progressing towards Alzheimer’s disease),8 and to provide therapeutic advantages in regulating inflammation in infection and inflammatory disease.9

Many studies have also demonstrated the efficacy of herbal medicine in treating various illnesses. Recently, the WHO estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care. Researchers from the University of Adelaide have shown that a mixture of extracts from the roots of two medicinal herbs, Kushe and Baituling, works to kill cancer cells.10 Furthermore, scientists concluded that herbal plants have the potential to delay the development of diabetic complications, although more investigations are necessary to characterize this antidiabetic effect.11 Finally, a study found that Chinese herbal formulations appeared to alleviate symptoms for some patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a common functional bowel disorder that is characterized by chronic or recurrent abdominal pain and does not currently have any reliable medical treatment.12

Both TCM and Western medicine seek to ease pain and improve function. Can the two be combined? TCM was largely ignored by Western medical professionals until recent years, but is slowly gaining traction among scientists and clinicians as studies show that an integrative approach has been effective. For instance, for patients dealing with chronic pain, Western medicine can stop the pain quickly with medication or interventional therapy, while TCM can provide a longer-lasting solution to the underlying problem with milder side effects and a greater focus on treating the underlying illness.13 A study by Cardiff University’s School of Medicine and Peking University in China showed that combining TCM and Western medicine could offer hope for developing new treatments for liver, lung, bone, and colorectal cancers.14 Also, studies on the use of traditional Chinese medicines for the treatment of multiple diseases like bronchial asthma, atopic dermatitis, and IBS showed that an interdisciplinary approach to TCM may lead to the discovery of new medicines.15

TCM is still a developing field in the Western world, and more research and clinical trials on the benefits and mechanisms of TCM are being conducted. While TCM methods such as acupuncture and herbal medicine must be further examined to be accepted as credible treatment techniques in modern medicine, they have been demonstrated to treat various illnesses and conditions. Therefore, while it is unlikely for TCM to be a suitable standalone option for disease management, it does have its place in a treatment plan with potential applications alongside Western medicine. Utilizing TCM as a complement to Western medicine presents hope in increasing the effectiveness of healthcare treatment.


  1. Yin and Yang Theory. Acupuncture Today. (accessed Dec. 15, 2016).
  2. Lao, L. et al. Integrative pediatric oncology. 2012, 125-135.
  3. The Conceptual Differences between Chinese and Western Medicine. (accessed Dec. 15, 2016).
  4. How Acupuncture Can Relieve Pain and Improve Sleep, Digestion, and Emotional Well-being. (accessed Dec. 15, 2016).
  5. Vickers, A J. et al. Arch of Internal Med. 2012, 172, 1444-1453.
  6. Melchart, D. et al. Bmj. 2005, 331, 376-382.
  7. Meng, Z. et al. Cancer. 2012, 118, 3337-3344.
  8. Feng, Y. et al. Magnetic resonance imaging. 2012, 30, 672-682.
  9. Torres-Rosas, R. et al. Nature medicine. 2014, 20, 291-295.
  10. Qu, Z. et al. Oncotarget. 2016, 7, 66003-66019.
  11. Bnouham, M. et al. Int. J. of Diabetes and Metabolism. 2006, 14, 1.
  12. Bensoussan, A. et al. Jama. 1998, 280, 1585-1589.
  13. Jiang, W. Trends in pharmacological sciences. 2005, 26, 558-563.
  14. Combining Chinese, Western medicine could lead to new cancer treatments. (accessed Dec. 15, 2016).
  15. Yuan, R.; Yuan L. Pharmacology & therapeutics. 2000, 86, 191-198.