An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM has its roots in the ancient traditions of Chinese culture and yet it is a rapidly growing field in modern health care around the globe. Underlying the practice of TCM is a unique view of the world and the human body that is different from Western medical concepts.  This view is based on the ancient Chinese perception of humans as microcosms of the larger, surrounding universe – interconnected with nature and subject to its forces. The human body is regarded as an organic entity in which the various organs, tissues, and other parts have distinct functions but are all inter-dependent. In this view, health and disease relate to the balance or imbalance of those functions.

TCM is best known in North America for its success in the treatment of pain but it can be employed to treat illnesses that result from the stress of modern life such as migraines, insomnia, anxiety, irritable bowel, chronic fatigue, etc. (See below for a more comprehensive list of the illnesses that TCM can treat).

What can I expect during a treatment?

TCM’s greatest strength lies in how each person is treated as an individual. Consequently, during your first appointment, much time will be spent doing a thorough review of your health history as well as learning about your background, lifestyle and habits in so far as they pertain to your overall current state of health. This information, in conjunction with pulses and tongue conditions and physical signs and symptoms, provide the basis for a personalized TCM diagnosis. Chronic conditions generally require long-term treatment which may be infrequent whereas conditions such as acute injuries or illness typically require frequent treatments for a shorter amount of time. Acupuncture has a cumulative effect and herbal medicine needs time to bring about change. Patients will be encouraged to take an active role in their healing process thorough lifestyle and dietary recommendations.


Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the surface of the body. These points lie on pathways called Meridians through which our blood and vital energy – known as Qi – flow. Illness or pain results from the disregulation in this flow or a blockage along the pathway. Problems in the flow of these Meridians will cause pain and dysfunction and compromise our immune system. Physical trauma or viruses and bacteria can block the flow but so can emotions. The TCM practitioner chooses points along the Meridians involved in the patient’s complaint to help restore communication within and between these pathways.

Does acupuncture hurt?

Acupuncture needles are extremely fine and cause very little sensation when inserted. Acupuncture does, however, result in a unique local sensation that varies from person to person and has been described as any of the following: aching, electric, distending or tingling. Some patients also describe a sensation of warmth or coolness.

How does acupuncture performed by a TCM doctor differ from the acupuncture offered by a physiotherapist or allopathic doctor?

The needle stimulation offered within a Western Medical framework is called Intramuscular Stimulation, (IMS) or ‘dry needling’. This technique involves inserting acupuncture needles into specific muscles that have contracted and become shortened. It treats mainly chronic neuropathic pain. The needle sites are usually at the epicenter of tight tender muscle bands or near the spine where the nerve root may be irritated.

TCM acupuncture can also target and aim to release tight muscles to treat chronic or acute pain but it is not restricted to the treatment of muscle pain. The acupuncturist chooses points along meridian pathways associated with the client’s issues and the points are often chosen for the effect they have elsewhere or deeper in the body. This allows us to address diverse complaints involving pain such as acid reflux, menstrual pain or Irritable bowel syndrome. Pain is often the symptom that alerts us to imbalance and acupuncture can assist with pain while simultaneously treating the root causes of the pain.

We often treat people receiving IMS for acute pain in conjunction with acupuncture and the two systems can work well together.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese Herbal Medicine is the perfect compliment to acupuncture. Acupuncture involves treatment on the surface or ‘yang’ aspect of the body whereas herbs are taken into the body to have a direct effect on the internal or ‘yin’ aspect. Custom prescriptions are typically composed for each individual according to their constitution and illness. These prescriptions are usually comprised of a standard classical formula modified for the individual. The herbs are chosen according to TCM principles and work together synergistically to address the patient’s pattern of disharmony. Herbal medicines can be used to help fight an acute or chronic illness or to strengthen the body in order to prevent illness. Prescriptions can be filled in the form of raw herbs, powders, capsules or pills to suit the lifestyle of the patient.


Cupping uses suction applied to glass or plastic cups to pull up the tissue in an area of stagnation on the body. The suction causes the skin to be sucked partway into the cup and you will feel a tightening sensation in the area of the cup that often feels very good. The cups are left in place for a short period or moved around on your back in a gliding motion. Cupping is usually combined with an acupuncture treatment and is helpful for many conditions including stress, shoulder pain, colds, back pain, anxiety and muscle aches. Cupping increases the flow of blood locally and releases the myofascial tissue to relieve pain and encourage fresh circulation. Cupping can leave bruises or discoloration on the skin which is harmless and usually disappears within a week.


Moxibustion involves the burning of mugwort, a small spongy herb, to facilitate healing. There are various ways to apply moxa. Direct moxa involves burning a small cone directly on the acupuncture point. Indirect moxa involves lighting one end of a cigar shaped stick of moxa and holding it over the desired point or meridian until the patient feels localized heat. Another way to use moxa is to attach it to the shaft of the acupuncture needle and light it. There is no flame but the moxa smolders and creates heat that travels down the needle. Moxibustion is an ancient technique used to expel cold, warm the meridians, and encourage good circulation. In the modern clinic carbonized moxa sticks (smokeless moxa) are normally used in order to avoid filling the clinic with smoke. A landmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that up to 75% of women with breech presentations before childbirth had babies that rotated to the normal position after receiving moxibustion at a specific acupuncture point.

Tuina Massage

Tuina is a form of Chinese manipulative therapy often used in conjunction with acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, herbalism, tai chi, and qi gong. It is a hands-on body treatment that uses Chinese medical principles in an effort to restore balance and get energy or ‘qi’ moving in the meridians and in the muscles. The practitioner can use range of motion, traction and massage along with stimulation of acupressure points. These techniques are claimed to aid in treatment of both acute and chronic musculoskeletal conditions as well as many non-musculoskeletal conditions such as pancreatitis, migraines, and menstrual pain, to name a few. Tuina is an integral part of TCM and is taught in TCM schools as part of formal training in Oriental medicine.