Feb 16, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is having a major moment. Once relegated to the fringes of contemporary medicine and largely disregarded by proponents of the Western way, this approach -- which comprises acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other mind and body practices -- has been growing in global popularity in recent years. Meanwhile, Chinese president Xi Jinping has heralded it as “the gem of Chinese science.”

Looking for more information about this ages-old craft and its potential therapeutic value in the modern world? Read on for a roundup of five things worth knowing about TCM.

1. It’s very old.

When we referred to Chinese medicine as an “ages-old” craft, we weren’t exaggerating.  

Says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), system of medicine at least 23 centuries old that aims to prevent or heal disease by maintaining or restoring yinyang balance. China has one of the world’s oldest medical systems. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies date back at least 2,200 years, although the earliest known written record of Chinese medicine is the Huangdi neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic) from the 3rd century BCE. That opus provided the theoretical concepts for TCM that remain the basis of its practice today.”

2. It connects medicine and nature.

TCM practitioners seek to identify and correct imbalances within the body. The medicine calls on the ancient Five Element framework which is interwoven throughout Chinese history and culture.

Explains the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation, “The Five Elements are a comprehensive template that organizes all natural phenomena into five master groups or patterns in nature. Each of the five groups—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—include categories such as a season, a direction, climate, stage of growth and development, internal organ, body tissue, emotion, aspect of the soul, taste, color, sound . . . the categories are seemingly limitless. The Five Elements reflect a deep understanding of natural law, the Universal order underlying all things in our world….It provides a master blueprint that diagrams how nature interacts with the body and how the different dimensions of our being impact each other.

3. It’s safe when performed by an experienced practitioner.

It’s easy to think “ancient” means inapplicable to modern times. However, while the tenets TCM  is based on have remained consistent over the years, practices and treatments have evolved with the times. Seeking out licensed TCM professionals ensures that you gain access to the safest, most effective care. Because of this, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) recommends that patients inquire about training and experience before selecting a TCM practitioner.

Think of it this way: Would you go to a medical doctor who had no medical qualifications or degree? The same principle applies to TCM practitioners.

4. It’s an exciting path of study.

We’ve established that that training and credentials matter when it comes to practicing TCM. Which begs the question: Where can you pursue studies in this exciting area of healthcare? Two schools, in particular, are standouts.

The Dublin-based Irish College of Traditional Medicine (ICTCM) offers internationally-recognized professional acupuncture courses and TCM training with programs including a Master of Chinese Medicine, a Doctoral in Chinese Medicine, and post-graduate certificate and training courses in acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and medical qigong. With degrees conferred by Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine (GUCM) and recognized by the Chinese Department of Education, they give aspiring TCM professionals an inside edge when it comes to establishing themselves in the field.

Another promising possibility? The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Hands-on training and in-class exercises are an integral part of this US school’s integrative medicine approach. From Associate’s degrees to PhDs, a breadth and depth of options are available aimed at helping students achieve their educational goals while cultivating essential professional skills.

5. It has a bright future.

While TCM and Western medicine are often viewed as polar opposites, experts are increasingly realizing the future value of the former -- both on its on and as a complement to Western treatments.

While participating in a National Science Review panel, one leader in the field proposed, “Medicine has biological and social aspects. I think TCM is a kind of social medicine with some biological basis, whereas Western medicine is mainly based on biology but also has some social elements. For instance, TCM has a whole set of social-medicine theory, whereas the effects of Chinese herbal medicine on, say, microbiomes and its clinical efficacy, belong to biological medicine. From the point view of biological basis, TCM has two key characters. First, it classifies health conditions based on physiological phenomena, which also determines treatment strategies. This may inform and improve Western medicine. Second, the holistic nature of compound formula of Chinese herbal medicine hold great promises of complementing Western medicine which focuses on individual disease targets.”

Another echoed, “It's said that the 21st century is the century of compound medicine. In Western science, the pharmaceutical industry has also shifted from the search for ‘magic bullets’ that target single disease-causing molecule to the pursuit of combination therapies that comprise more than one active ingredient. This is a good opportunity for developing Chinese herbal medicine.”

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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