A Complete Overview of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Published on July 31, 2023

By Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell has worked as a copywriter, writer, author, and editor for 35 years, specializing in the field of healthcare since 2009. She recognized the need for reliable health information while supporting friends through unique health challenges and refocused her career to bring clarity and compassion to healthcare communications. Lisa is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a lifelong Northern Californian.

Originating in China thousands of years ago, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic approach to healthcare based on the philosophy that everything is connected, both in our environment and bodies. TCM considers not only your physical symptoms but also your health's emotional, mental, and energetic aspects. 

This overview introduces you to the principles and components of TCM, highlighting its unique contributions and relationship to Western medicine and Herbalism. Understanding TCM may help you integrate this holistic approach to health and well-being into your life, gain insights into the interconnectedness of body, mind, and environment, and broaden your perspective on alternative medicine. 

The Ancient Practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM is a comprehensive system of healthcare that offers a holistic approach to health, incorporating herbs, acupuncture, acupressure, diet, cupping, Qigong, and other modalities to bring the entire body into balance.

Over two thousand years ago, Chinese practitioners wrote what is thought to be the foundational text for TCM in a series of texts called the “Huangdi Neijing” (“The Inner Cannon of the Yellow Emperor”). The practice has evolved over time, but remains based on these original teachings and two important theories: Yin Yang and the Five Elements. 

Yin-Yang Principles

Yin-Yang theory represents the dualistic and complementary nature of all things. Yin represents qualities such as darkness, cold, stillness, passivity, and substance. Yang represents qualities such as light, heat, activity, movement, and function. 

Yin cannot exist without Yang. They are inseparable and live within each other. For example, day (Yang) transitions into night (Yin), and vice versa.

In TCM, Yin-Yang theory serves as a framework for assessing harmony and balance, viewing health as the result of the dynamic equilibrium and appropriate interplay of Yin and Yang energies within the body. When practitioners determine imbalances and patterns of disharmony, their goal is to rebalance Yin and Yang energies so the body can heal itself.

The Five Elements Theory

The Five Elements theory, also known as the Five Phases or Five Transformations, is based on the philosophy that the human body, like all matter, is made up of the same five elements — Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. These elements form an interrelated system that is closely tied to the flow of Qi, the vital energy (life force) that circulates throughout the body. 

The Five Elements are not considered literal substances but symbolic representations of different aspects of nature and the human experience. Each element is associated with specific organs, characteristics, emotions, colors, sounds, tastes, and seasons: 

Wood Element:

  • Corresponds to the liver and gallbladder organs
  • Represents growth, vitality, and flexibility
  • Associated with the color green and a sour taste
  • Manifests motivation in harmony andanger in disharmony
  • Symbolizes the energy of spring and new beginnings

Fire Element:

  • Corresponds to the heart and small intestine organs
  • Symbolizes warmth, transformation, and passion
  • Associated with the color red, a bitter taste
  • Manifest joy in harmony and agitation in disharmony
  • Represents the energy of summer and abundance

Earth Element:

  • Corresponds to the spleen and stomach organs
  • Represents nourishment, stability, and grounding
  • Associated with the color yellow, a sweet taste
  • Manifests empathy in harmony and anxiety in disharmony
  • Symbolizes the energy of late summer and harvest

Metal Element:

  • Corresponds to the lungs and large intestine organs
  • Signifies strength, clarity, and order
  • Associated with the color white, a pungent taste
  • Manifestsoptimism in harmony and sadness in disharmony
  • Represents the energy of autumn and introspection

Water Element:

  • Corresponds to the kidneys and urinary bladder organs
  • Symbolizes fluidity, adaptability, and wisdom
  • Associated with the color black, a salty taste
  • Manifestsendurance in harmony and fear in disharmony
  • Represents the energy of winter and conservation

While Yin-Yang focuses on the interplay of opposing forces, the Five Elements theory considers how the elements support and regulate each other to ensure that Qi flows continuously and harmoniously throughout the body.

Each of the five elements is associated with specific meridians, also known as energy channels, which are believed to be pathways through which Qi and blood flow throughout the body. Meridians form an intricate network connecting organs, tissues, and physiological systems. 

TCM recognizes 12 main meridians associated with specific organs or organ systems. The meridians have branches that distribute Qi and blood to various tissues and muscles. The 12 meridians are further classified into six Yin and Yang pairs, reflecting the body's interconnected nature of Yin and Yang energies.

TCM practitioners use their knowledge of Yin-Yang theory and the Five Elements to assess the flow of Qi, identify any areas of imbalance or blockage, and determine, if necessary, what techniques will best restore a smooth flow of energy and good health. 

Health Diagnosis in TCM

In TCM, practitioners use the Four Pillars of Diagnosis, also known as the Four Examinations, to assess a patient's condition and determine an appropriate treatment approach. Unlike in Western medicine, where a healthcare provider focuses on a patient’s specific symptoms, the TCM provider looks at the whole patient, taking a holistic approach to diagnosing the underlying cause of any symptoms. 

The Four Pillars provide a comprehensive understanding of the patient's overall health and help identify patterns of disharmony.


The practitioner observes the patient's overall physical appearance from head to toe:

  • Facial diagnosis: The color, complexion, and expressions of the face are examined to identify imbalances or underlying conditions.
  • Tongue diagnosis: The tongue's shape, color, coating, moisture, and movement are assessed to gather information about internal organ function and overall health.
  • Nail diagnosis: The condition, color, and shape of the nails provide additional insights into a patient's health.

Listening and Smelling:

The practitioner pays attention to the patient's voice, breathing, and any particular odors.

  • Listening: Practitioners listen to the patient's speech, tone, and voice characteristics, which may reflect imbalances in specific organs or meridians.
  • Smelling: Certain odors, such as those emitted from the breath or body, can provide further clues about a patient's condition.


The practitioner asks the patient about their medical history, symptoms, lifestyle, emotions, and other relevant factors. They gather information about the patient's chief complaints, the duration and nature of their symptoms, factors that aggravate or relieve their symptoms, and associated issues.

Additionally, the practitioner will question the patient about lifestyle factors, dietary habits, sleep patterns, and other personal characteristics.


This involves physical examination through touch, focusing on areas such as the pulse, abdomen, and meridians.

  • Pulse diagnosis: TCM pulse diagnosis is highly intricate, with practitioners assessing the pulse at various positions on the radial artery to detect qualities like rate, rhythm, depth, width, and strength. The pulse provides information about the state of different organs and meridians.
  • Abdominal palpation: By palpating the abdomen, practitioners assess the condition and sensitivity of the organs, looking for tenderness, masses, or other abnormalities.
  • Meridian palpation: Practitioners may palpate along specific meridians or acupoints to identify areas of tenderness, blockages, or imbalances.

By combining the information gathered through the Four Pillars of Diagnosis, TCM practitioners determine patterns of disharmony, identify the root cause of a patient's condition, and develop personalized treatment strategies. 

One thing to note in TCM diagnosis is that when practitioners diagnose an issue with organ health, such as the liver or spleen, they are not solely focusing on the anatomical organ as understood in Western medicine. Instead, they refer to the broader concept of the organ system, which is connected to a network of functions, emotions, and energetics beyond the physical organ itself. 

For example, consider liver health in TCM. Certain physical symptoms may indicate liver disharmony, such as abdominal distension, menstrual irregularities, headaches, eye problems, and muscle tension. Additionally, since the liver is associated with the emotion of anger in TCM, imbalances in the liver system may manifest as irritability, mood swings, or difficulty with decision-making and planning. 

TCM treats organ and other imbalances by promoting the smooth flow of Qi and blood, clearing stagnant energy, and harmonizing the organ system. 

7 Personalized Treatment Strategies in TCM

TCM seeks to address a patient’s overall systemic problem, focusing on preventing any potential adverse effects. This may involve one or more modalities, including herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, mind-body practices, therapeutic massage, and dietary therapy.


The use of herbal medicine is an integral part of TCM and is considered one of the primary treatment modalities within the system. Often in discussions about Herbalism, you hear TCM mentioned in the same breath as Western Herbalism since they both involve plants with potential health benefits. However, these are two distinct practices with unique philosophies and approaches. 

While Western Herbalism focuses on the health properties of herbs within the context of Western medical principles, TCM Herbalism considers an individual’s specific patterns of disharmony, as determined through TCM diagnostic methods. The properties of individual herbs, such as their taste, temperature, and affinity for specific organs or meridians, are considered when formulating treatments. These formulations may consist of a combination of multiple herbs, carefully selected and combined to address the condition's root cause and support overall health.

Herbal medicine in TCM is used for a wide range of health conditions, including but not limited to digestive disorders, respiratory conditions, pain management, women's health issues, and mental-emotional well-being. It is often used with other TCM modalities like acupuncture, dietary therapy, and lifestyle adjustments to provide a holistic approach to healing.

Herbalism in TCM relies on comprehensive pharmacopeias, such as the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, which provide guidelines on herbal identification, preparation methods, and dosages. These standards help practitioners ensure safe and effective herbal prescribing.

It's important to note that herbal medicine in TCM is based on traditional knowledge, extensive training, and accumulated experience, and the formulations may differ from those used in Western Herbalism. Practitioners use the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, which provides guidelines on herbal identification, preparation methods, and dosages, to ensure safe and effective herbal prescribing.


Acupuncture originated in ancient China and has since gained recognition and popularity worldwide. Its goal is to regulate the flow of Qi, promote its smooth circulation, and address imbalances or blockages that may lead to illness or discomfort.

This modality, which requires a license to practice in 47 states in the U.S., has been shown to address a wide range of health conditions. Significant research has proven acupuncture to be effective at pain management. While more research is needed, studies have shown it to support digestive health, stress management, fertility issues, and emotional well-being. It is often administered in a series of sessions to achieve cumulative and more lasting effects. The number and frequency of treatments depend on the individual's condition and response to acupuncture.

Acupuncture involves inserting fine, sterile needles into specific acupoints. These acupoints are located along the meridians at specific locations where Qi can be accessed and influenced. Acupuncturists select and stimulate points based on individual patterns of disharmony and the acupoints’ relation to specific organs, elements, and energetic qualities. One form of acupuncture, auricular acupuncture, involves placing needles in specific areas of the ear or ears. Studies have shown this to reduce pain significantly.

Acupuncture is often utilized as a complementary therapy in collaboration with Western medicine. Licensed acupuncturists adhere to strict hygiene practices and safety standards. Using sterile, disposable needles minimizes the risk of infection or complications.


Moxibustion is a therapeutic technique used in TCM that involves burning dried mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) near specific acupoints or areas of the body. It is believed to stimulate specific acupoints, promote the smooth flow of Qi, improve circulation, and address conditions related to cold or stagnant Qi. It is commonly used for conditions such as pain management, digestive disorders, menstrual irregularities, and certain chronic illnesses. It is often used in conjunction with acupuncture or as a standalone treatment.

The material used in moxibustion is called "moxa." Moxa is made by forming the dried leaves of the mugwort plant into various shapes, including loose moxa, moxa sticks, or cones. The quality and preparation of moxa can vary.

The most commonly used moxibustion technique involves holding a moxa stick or cone near the acupoint or area of the body without making direct contact. The practitioner hovers the moxa close enough to produce a gentle warmth without causing discomfort or burns. When a moxa cone is used, this compacted form of moxa is ignited and placed on the skin or an acupuncture needle. It burns slowly, allowing heat to penetrate deeper into the acupoint.

The techniques and duration of moxibustion vary depending on the individual's condition, the acupoint selected, and the desired therapeutic effect. Moxibustion sessions may last from a few minutes to 20 minutes or more.

As with any TCM treatment, moxibustion should be administered by a qualified practitioner who thoroughly understands TCM theory and the appropriate techniques for safe and effective application.


Cupping involves placing special cups on the skin and using a pumping method to create suction that draws the skin and underlying tissues upward into the cup. The cups can be made of various materials, such as glass, bamboo, ceramic, or silicone.

There are three types of cupping:

  • Dry Cupping: The cups are placed directly on the skin to create a vacuum and left on for about 5 to 15 minutes.
  • Wet Cupping: Before applying the cups, small incisions are made on the skin to release a small amount of blood. The cups are then placed over the incisions to draw out a small amount of blood.
  • Moving (Dynamice) Cupping: In this dry cupping technique, oil is applied to the skin, and the cups are moved along specific meridians or areas of tension.

Cupping is believed to help promote the flow of Qi and blood, dispel stagnation, and remove toxins from the body. It is often used to address conditions related to pain, muscle tension, respiratory issues, and various other ailments.

After cupping, circular marks or bruises may appear on the skin. These marks are caused by the suction and indicate the release of stagnant blood and Qi from the underlying tissues. The marks typically fade within a few days. This technique is considered safe and effective when performed by a trained practitioner.

Mind-Body Practices

Qigong and Tai Chi are traditional Chinese mind-body practices that are used in TCM as both preventive and therapeutic treatments for a wide range of health conditions. Both practices are thought to harmonize the flow of Qi within the body, promote relaxation, and enhance overall physical and psychological well-being. 


Qigong utilizes slow, flowing, and meditative movements combined with slow, long, and deep breathing and mental focus. The breath is coordinated with the movements and the mental focus is directed towards the breath, the sensations in the body, and the flow of Qi. 

Qigong can be practiced through a wide variety of forms and sequences, each with its specific focus and purpose. Some Qigong forms are named after animals, elements of nature, or based on traditional Chinese medicine principles. In some Qigong practices, practitioners hold specific postures for extended periods, often referred to as standing meditation. These postures help cultivate strength, stability, and a connection with the earth's energy.

Consistency is key in Qigong practice. Regular daily or weekly practice can help to deepen the benefits and effects of Qigong on physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Qigong can be adapted to suit individual needs, physical abilities, and health conditions. It is suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a martial art form characterized by a series of flowing and choreographed movements, often referred to as a "form" or "routine." The movements in Tai Chi are generally more complex and continuous than in Qigong, involving a seamless transition from one posture to another. Tai Chi forms can vary in length and can take several minutes to complete.

Tai Chi combines self-defense techniques with the principles of Taoist philosophy. Over time, it has evolved into a form of moving meditation and exercise for health and wellness, with an emphasis on promoting the flow of Qi and enhancing physical, mental, and emotional balance.

While Tai Chi and Qigong have different origins and primary focuses, they both offer numerous health benefits, including cardiovascular health, stress reduction, improved balance, enhanced flexibility and range of motion, and increased vitality. 

Tui Na: Therapeutic Massage

Tui Na is a Chinese term that translates to "pushing" and "grasping," referring to the manual techniques used in this form of massage, including pressing, kneading, and rolling. The therapist uses their hands, fingers, palms, and elbows to apply pressure to specific acupoints, meridians, and areas of the body to promote the flow of Qi and address the individual's health concerns. The rhythmic and soothing techniques used in Tui Na can promote a sense of relaxation and ease tension in the body.

Tui Na is generally performed with the patient fully clothed, lying on a massage table, or sitting in a chair. The therapist applies specific techniques to the affected areas or along the meridians. 

TCM Dietary Therapy

TCM Dietary Therapy emphasizes the therapeutic use of food to promote health, prevent illness, and address specific health conditions. It takes a holistic view of health, considering not only the food’s nutritional content of foods but also its energetic properties and effects on the body, mind, and energy flow.

The principles of the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements theory are used to categorize foods based on their energetic qualities. Foods can be classified as Yin or Yang, and are associated with specific elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water). They are also classified based on their thermal nature (cold, cool, neutral, warm, hot) and flavors (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, salty). Different foods are thought to have different effects on the body's Qi and can be used to balance specific conditions. 

TCM dietary therapy emphasizes the importance of eating seasonally and in harmony with nature. Consuming foods that are abundant in each season helps the body adapt to seasonal changes and maintain balance. 

A wide variety of whole foods are included in TCM dietary therapy, including grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, meats, fish, and herbs. Each food group has specific energetic properties. Different cooking techniques are believed to change the energetic properties of foods, so food preparation is a consideration when eating a TCM diet. 

Like other aspects of TCM, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to diet.

As with any therapeutic approach, seeking guidance from a qualified TCM practitioner to receive personalized dietary recommendations tailored to your individual health needs is essential.

Integration of TCM and Western Medicine

While TCM and modern medicine have different philosophies and methodologies, they can complement each other's strengths to create a more holistic and patient-centered system of healthcare that emphasizes prevention, focuses on the underlying causes of disease, and promotes overall well-being. 

Clinical studies have been done using various TCM modalities with promising results. Integrating TCM into Western Medicine practices may lead to more research and clinical studies that evaluate the safety and efficacy of these treatments. Collaborative studies can strengthen the evidence base for TCM therapies and guide their integration into standard care.

Many TCM modalities, such as herbalism, acupuncture, Qigong, and Tui Na massage, are non-invasive and have minimal side effects. Integrating these therapies with modern medicine can offer alternative options for patients, especially those who cannot tolerate or prefer to avoid pharmaceuticals or surgery.

At the same time, integration promotes cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for diverse medical traditions, which may lead to a more inclusive and culturally competent healthcare system that harnesses the best of both disciplines.