Basic Theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine

The theory of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water, was an ancient philosophical concept used to explain the composition and phenomena of the physical universe. In traditional Chinese medicine the theory of five elements is used to interpret the relationship between the physiology and pathology of the human body and the natural environment. According to the theory, the five elements are in constant move and change, and the interdependence and mutual restraint of the five elements explain the complex connection between material objects as well as the unity between the human body and the natural world. In traditional Chinese medicine, the visceral organs, as well as other organs and tissues, have similar properties to the five elements; they interact physiologically and pathologically as the five elements do. Through similarity comparison, different phenomena are attributed to the categories of the five elements. Based on the characteristics, forms, and functions of different phenomena, the complex links between physiology and pathology as well as the interconnection between the human body and the natural world are explained.

Traditional Chinese MedicineThe five elements emerged from an observation of the various groups of dynamic processes, functions and characteristics observed in the natural world. The aspects involved in each of the five elements are follows:

  • Fire: draught, heat, flaring, ascendance, movement, etc.
  • Wood: germination, extension, softness, harmony, flexibility, etc.
  • Metal: strength, firmness, killing, cutting, cleaning up, etc.
  • Earth: growing, changing, nourishing, producing, etc.
  • Water: moisture, cold, descending, flowing, etc.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese MedicineTraditional Chinese medicine is one of the oldest continuous systems of medicine in history, with recorded instances dating as far back as two thousand years before the birth of Christ. This is in sharp contrast to the American or Western forms of health care, which have been in existence for a much shorter time span (the American Medical Association, the largest health care member association in the United States, was formed in 1847, some 3,800 years after the first mention of traditional Chinese medicine).

Chinese medicine is quite complex and can be difficult for some people to comprehend. This is because TCM is based, at least in part, on the Daoist belief that we live in a universe in which everything is interconnected. What happens to one part of the body affects every other part of the body. The mind and body are not viewed separately, but as part of an energetic system. Similarly, organs and organ systems are viewed as interconnected structures that work together to keep the body functioning.

Traditional Chinese MedicineMany of the concepts emphasized in traditional Chinese medicine have no true counterpart in Western medicine. One of these concepts is qi (pronounced "chi"), which is considered a vital force or energy responsible for controlling the workings of the human mind and body. Qi flows through the body via channels, or pathways, which are called meridians. There are a total of 20 meridians: 12 primary meridians, which correspond to specific organs, organ systems or functions, and eight secondary meridians. Imbalances in the flow of qi cause illness; correction of this flow restores the body to balance. Other concepts (such as the Yin/Yang and Five Element Theories) are equally important in order to have a true grasp of traditional Chinese medicine, and will be discussed at length elsewhere on this site.

Many people often equate the practice of acupuncture with the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. This is not entirely true. While acupuncture is the most often practiced component of traditional Chinese medicine, it is simply that – a component, an important piece of a much larger puzzle. Traditional Chinese medicine encompasses several methods designed to help patients achieve and maintain health. Along with acupuncture, TCM incorporates adjunctive techniques such as acupressure and moxibustion; manipulative and massage techniques such as tuina and gua sha; herbal medicine; diet and lifestyle changes; meditation; and exercise (often in the form of qigong or tai chi).

Traditional Chinese MedicineTraditional Chinese medicine should not also be confused with "Oriental medicine." Whereas traditional Chinese medicine is considered a standardized version of the type of Chinese medicine practice before the Chinese Revolution, Oriental medicine is a catch-all phrase for the styles of acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and exercise that have been developed and practice not only in Asia, but world-wide.

Although the principles of traditional Chinese medicine may be difficult for some to comprehend, there is little doubt of TCM's effectiveness. Several studies have reported on traditional Chinese medicine's success in treating a wide range of conditions, from nausea and vomiting to skin disorders, tennis elbow and back pain. Many Western-trained physicians have begun to see the benefits traditional Chinese medicine has to offer patients and now include acupuncture — at least on a limited basis -- as part of their practice. More Americans are also using acupuncture, herbal remedies and other components of traditional Chinese medicine than ever before. The reasons for this vary, but the increasing interest in, and use of, TCM is due in large part to its effectiveness, affordability and lack of adverse side-effects compared to Western medicine.

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