Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is fast gaining popularity around the world, with people using it alone or in combination with Western therapies and medicines to diagnose, treat and prevent illness. This alternative medical system has evolved over thousands of years, says Michelle Zhang, a TCM practitioner at Balanced Health in Hong Kong. “TCM has its roots in the Shang dynasty period’s shamanistic era, between 1766 and 1122BC,” she says. “It developed over the next few centuries, and became a standard medical therapy in China , along with massage, diet, herbal medicine, bleeding [bloodletting through acupuncture] and moxibustion [burning dried mugwort leaves on points on the body]. TCM … believes that the mind and body are closely connected and that our physical and mental health are highly correlated Master Ruth Lee, TCM practitioner “Today, most hospitals in China provide treatments that integrate Western and Chinese medicine. “Patients who’ve had Western surgery may be given Chinese herbs to help with their recovery or treated with acupuncture and/or massage to relieve pain.” Zhang adds: “This integration [shows] the growth of medicine in China. The use of TCM is also growing in countries like Australia, the United States and elsewhere.” “TCM is so much a part of our culture and everyday life now,” adds Master Ruth Lee, a TCM practitioner with her own clinic in Hong Kong. “We eat according to the seasons, consume herbal soups to maintain our health, and drink tea with chrysanthemum, common self-heal, goji berries and dandelion to detoxify or tonify our liver systems.” How the Chinese Medicine Hospital can strengthen TCM in public health care How TCM works Simply put, TCM is based on the understanding that our body’s vital energy, known as qi, flows through channels in the body called meridians. Qi is what keeps our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health in balance. TCM therapies aim to restore the body’s balance between the forces of yin and yang. Imbalances are believed to “block” the flow of qi and cause disease. TCM therapy takes many forms, including herbal therapy, diet, acupuncture , meditation, physical exercise and massage. TCM differs from other medical systems in several ways, says Lee. “For one, it believes that the mind and body are closely connected and that our physical and mental health are highly correlated. “This is why practitioners address illnesses not only with medication and procedures, but also recommendations on lifestyle, diet and so on. We don’t just focus on relieving the symptoms but try to attend to the cause. “Treatments are individualised because everyone is unique and has different needs. Even if two people have the same condition or symptoms, their treatments will not be identical. “We take a preventive approach, meaning that we don’t just treat illness but also try to prevent it.” The different forms of TCM There are many different TCM therapies. Acupuncture , for example, involves the painless insertion of ultra-thin, single-use needles into specific points on the body called acupoints, to “rebalance” the flow of qi. It is used for a range of diseases and problems, including chronic and acute pain. “By re-establishing good energy flow, the body can begin to heal itself and restore health,” Zhang explains. Cupping involves the suctioning of sections of the body using glass cups . The cups are first warmed with a flame to create a vacuum, which anchors the cup to the skin and pulls it upwards, opening the skin’s pores. Zhang says that this encourages blood flow to the area, balancing the flow of qi and easing toxin removal. Cupping is useful for asthma, anxiety and pneumonia, among other conditions. “And then there’s tui na , a mix between acupressure and shiatsu,” Zhang says. Tui means “to push” and na means “to grab or squeeze”. “This uses rhythmic compression along energy channels of the body, as well as techniques to manipulate and lubricate the joints. Like acupressure, tui na affects the flow of qi by holding and pressing the body at acupressure points. “Tui na can restore digestive function and help the lungs to discharge phlegm.” Gua sha is another common TCM therapy . Lee says it’s useful in anti-ageing facial treatments and for muscular pain. This therapy involves “scraping” lubricated skin with a special tool using specific strokes and levels of pressure. The tools are typically made from jade, rose quartz, amber, bullhorn or medical-grade stainless steel. Gua sha: why the ancient TCM practice is now a viral skincare trend “The unidirectional scraping and scratching of the skin causes light bruising, which often appears as purple or red spots known as petechiae or sha ,” Lee adds. “The ‘ sha blemishes’ can look frightful but are mostly painless and resolve after a while.” Herbal formulas are also common in TCM treatments. They’re often customised from hundreds of ingredients and work to address the patient’s specific condition. “Despite the fact that TCM is an ancient practice, the technology involved in the production of herbal medicines these days is advanced,” says Lee. “The granulated herbal extracts are high in quality and are a convenient alternative to raw herbs.” What TCM can be used for TCM has shown to be effective on a range of conditions, from neck pain because of stress, to symptoms of the common cold and even cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) has given its approval for the use of TCM. Coronavirus: does herbal medicine work, and could it help in stricken Hubei? “Many studies and clinical trials done on acupuncture have yielded positive results,” Lee points out. “The WHO has listed over 100 conditions that acupuncture may be recommended for, such as lower back pain, headache, facial paralysis like Bell’s Palsy, infertility, insomnia, allergic rhinitis, acne and premenstrual syndrome.” TCM is complementary to Western treatments . Zhang says TCM not only strengthens the therapeutic effects of the Western medicine or therapy but also offers soothing side effects. “TCM herbs may reduce the negative side-effects of chemotherapy, such as [vomiting], nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fatigue. However, the herbs must be prescribed and the patient’s condition monitored by qualified practitioners.” Side effects and risks Herbs may seem harmless, but Zhang says that they can be toxic if taken in high concentrations or large amounts or for an extended period. Common side-effects may include dizziness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. She advises getting guidance from a qualified TCM practitioner before using herbs, even if you just want to make an herbal soup using a recipe you found online. The risks of using herbs are especially high if you suffer from liver or kidney ailments. Why TCM and Indian medicine can’t compete with Western drugs “Acupuncture and cupping are generally safe, as long as they’re performed by qualified practitioners who understand your medical history and follow the protocols,” Zhang adds. “Occasionally, some people may experience side effects after acupuncture, such as dizziness, tiredness, or pain or bruising at the site where the needle penetrated the skin. Cupping usually leaves marks that take about a week to disappear.” If your skin is swollen or inflamed, if you have skin wounds or broken bones or are taking blood thinning medication, then cupping may not be suitable for you. If you’re pregnant, then avoid getting acupuncture in your abdominal region and lower back area. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .