Traditional Chinese Medicine: What You Need To Know
What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use various mind and body practices (such as acupuncture and tai chi) as well as herbal products to address health problems.
What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, usually by inserting thin needles through the skin. Studies suggest that acupuncture stimulates the release of the body’s natural painkillers and affects areas in the brain involved in processing pain; however, some trials suggest that real acupuncture and sham acupuncture are equally effective, indicating a placebo effect. Results from a number of studies, however, suggest real acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic, such as low-back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis/knee pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches.
Tai chi combines certain postures, gentle movements, mental focus, breathing, and relaxation. Research findings suggest that practicing tai chi may improve balance and stability in older people and those with Parkinson’s disease, reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis, help people cope with fibromyalgia and back pain, and promote quality of life and improve mood in people with heart failure.
Chinese Herbal Products
Chinese herbal products have been studied for many medical problems, including stroke, heart disease, mental disorders, and respiratory diseases (such as bronchitis and the common cold), and a national survey showed that about one in five Americans use them. Because many studies have been of poor quality, no firm conclusions can be made about their effectiveness.
What’s the Bottom Line?
How Much Do We Know About Traditional Chinese Medicine?
The approaches that make up traditional Chinese medicine (such as acupuncture, tai chi, and herbal products) have been the subjects of many clinical studies and scientific reviews.
What Do We Know About the Effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Some mind and body practices used in traditional Chinese medicine practices, such as acupuncture and tai chi, may help improve quality of life and certain pain conditions. Studies of Chinese herbal products used in traditional Chinese medicine for a range of medical conditions have had mixed results.
What Do We Know About the Safety of Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Some Chinese herbal products have been contaminated with toxic compounds, heavy metals, pesticides, and microorganisms and may have serious side effects. Manufacturing errors, in which one herb is mistakenly replaced with another, also have resulted in serious complications.
More to Consider
- If you’re considering TCM, be sure to discuss this with your health care providers. Don’t use TCM to replace or delay seeking conventional care.
- If you have a health condition, talk with your health care provider before using TCM herbal products.
- Ask about the training and experience of the TCM practitioner you are considering. Most states and the District of Columbia have laws regulating acupuncture practice, and most states require certification from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. For more information, see NCCIH’s Web page on credentials and licensing of complementary health practitioners.
- If you are pregnant or nursing, or are thinking of using TCM to treat a child, be especially sure to consult your (or the child’s) health care provider.
- Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
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