TCM: Treatment and Diagnostic Methods in Traditional Chinese Medicine


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Acupuncture can be used to treat various symptoms. Photo by kphunter

What distinguishes TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine, from other medical systems such as the Western medical establishment?

Diagnosis in TCM is done by the careful measurement of the patient’s various pulses, observation of his or her general demeanor, observation of the tongue, and asking questions. This process is called “pattern recognition” or “pattern discrimination,” and it is used by the TCM practitioner to ascertain the nature of the problem and determine a treatment strategy. Once a diagnosis is made, the medicalpractitioner creates a unique treatment program based on the specific needs of the patient.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: The Critical Difference

The single most important aspect of TCM that distinguishes it from Western medicine is the fact that treatment is based on the patient’s individual combination of patterns, no matter what his or her disease may be. This carries a significant advantage: in contrast to Western medicine, TCM is almost entirely free of side effects because it is based on the individual patient’s unique patterns.

The two most frequently used methods of treatment in TCM are acupuncture and herbal medicines, and most often they are used in combination.

Acupuncture in Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture involves the use of tiny, delicate Chinese needles, placed at specific points along the body, called “meridians.” A treatment may use anywhere from a few needles to several dozen at a time. The needles are inserted (usually painlessly) and must remain in the skin for 15 – 45 minutes, depending upon the individual needs of the patient. During this time, many TCM practitioners position their patients comfortably on a treatment table or in a chair, where they may relax or doze, listening to soft music in the background.

Acupuncture needles are tiny, yet effective. Photo by xhienne

The needles used in TCM are so different from the needles used in Western medical practice that the word “needle” is practically a misnomer. Chinese needles are short, thin, and flexible rather than long, thick, and stiff, and come in various sizes. In China, thicker needles are used, while in the West, the needles usually used are thinner and more flexible.

In any case, the acupuncture needles are consistently tiny in diameter, measuring a few thousandths of an inch (approximately 0.16 millimeters). Acupuncture needles are a few centimeters in length (roughly an inch or two); cause a feeling like a slight pin-prick when inserted, and within moments, the patient ceases to feel them altogether. What the patient does feel is a tingling sensation at the point of entry, as the needles increase the flow of energy from one place to another throughout the body. Thus, the subjective feeling is that of a slight buzz, which can actually be very pleasant for some patients.

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