Chinese medicine is a holistic medical system which combines the use of acupuncture, Chinese herbs, nutrition, massage, and movement exercises (known as Tai Chi or Qi Gong) to bring the body into balance.
Whereas Western medicine looks closely at a symptom and tries to find an underlying cause, Chinese Medicine looks at the body as a whole. Each symptom is looked at in relationship to all other presenting symptoms. The goal of the Chinese Medicine practitioner is to assess the entire constitution of the patient — considering both physiological and psychological aspects.
The practitioner first observes the general characteristics of the patient, then tries to discern a relationship between symptoms in order to establish what is called a “pattern of disharmony”. Treatment is aimed at restoring harmony and bringing the body into balance.
There are several theories which can be used to determine the “pattern of disharmony”. The whole person is always taken into account and relationships are not seen as linear. Following is a brief discussion of the basics of Chinese medicine.
Yin & Yang
One of the fundamental Chinese medicine theories used to determine the pattern of disharmony is the theory of “Yin and Yang”. Yin and Yang are terms used to describe two polar opposites. Each body part, each organ, and even each symptom in the body can be described in terms of Yin and Yang. Levels of Yin and Yang are constantly changing in the body and there are four possible states of imbalance:
• Excess of Yin
• Excess of Yang
• Deficiency of Yin
• Deficiency of Yang
It is rare for one of these states of imbalance to exist by itself. Excesses and deficiencies of Yin and Yang almost always appear in combination. For example, if a patient has loose stools associated with a stomach flu this shows an excess of Yin. This excess Yin is a build-up of dampness which can be seen in the symptom of loose stools. If this patient also has a fever associated with the stomach flu, this shows an additional excess of Yang. The heat associated with this fever is an excess Yang symptom. In this example, a Yin excess and Yang excess are occurring simultaneously.
In treating the overall pattern of disharmony, the TCM practitioner uses acupuncture and Chinese herbs to address all imbalances of Yin and Yang.
To look at the body as an integrated whole, one also looks at the theory of the ‘Internal Organs’. The Chinese medicine definition of an Internal Organ is very different from the Western concept. In Western medicine, an organ is a material-anatomical structure. In Chinese medicine each Internal Organ encompasses much more. There can be an anatomical structure, but there is also a corresponding emotion, tissue, sensory organ, color and element.
In addition, 12 of the Internal Organs correspond to the 12 main acupuncture meridians (or channels) that run through the body. There is qi (or energy) flowing through each meridian. If an Internal Organ is out of balance, the qi of that organ will be damaged. Therefore, the Chinese Lung (which is capitalized to distinguish it as the Chinese organ) shouldn’t be equated with the Western Organ – although there are definite similarities.
Qi, Blood & Body Fluids
The simplest translation of qi (as given above) is “energy”, yet there is no one English phrase that can truly capture its meaning. Everything in the universe (both organic and inorganic) is made up of qi, but qi is neither purely material nor purely energetic. One translation given is “energy at the point of materializing”.
The qi of the body comes from three main sources — the qi which we are born with, the qi we derive from food, and the qi which comes from the air we breathe. In addition there is qi associated with each organ and qi protecting the body from invasion by pathogens (which prevents us from getting sick).
Disharmonies of qi can occur if there is not enough qi in an individual (known as qi deficiency), if one’s qi get stuck (known as qi stagnation), or if qi flows in the wrong direction (known as rebellious qi).
The Chinese medicine concept of blood includes not only blood flowing through the arteries and veins as we know it, but also a substance flowing through the meridians. The pathway of blood is considered less important than its functions of continuously circulating, nourishing, maintaining, and moistening various body parts. Blood and qi are considered to have a mutually dependent relationship.
Like qi, blood can also be deficient when there is not enough of it, or stagnant when it gets stuck. Body fluids are the liquids in the body other than blood, which moisten and nourish the hair, skin, flesh, organs, bones, joints, and brain. These fluids are derived from food and regulated by qi. In order for there to be balance in the body, the qi, blood and body fluids must flow smoothly.
The theory of the 5 phases looks at 5 interrelated forces that have specific relationships to one another. The five images used to describe these forces are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Each of these elements has corresponding organs, emotions, colors, tastes, tissues, human sounds, and endless other correspondences.
An individual’s signs and symptoms will often fit neatly into the framework of these five elements. The elements are described as “phases” because they have relationships to one another which are defined by movement and motion. These phases interact according to patterns of “generating” and “controlling”. As an example, Fire is said to “generate” Earth and “control” Metal. Therefore, disharmonies in both the Earth and Metal phases can be addressed by treating Fire. This kind of 5 phase diagnosis can be very useful clinically in determining an acupuncture treatment.
Traditional Chinese medicine is unique in its ability to view signs and symptoms from more than just one perspective. The theories of Yin and Yang, Internal Organs, Qi, Blood & Body Fluids, and the Five Phases allow a practitioner to treat disease as a unique occurrence in each individual rather than a static condition which is the same for everyone. This broad and open approach gives Chinese medicine the depth and complexity necessary to be a truly holistic medicine.