This article is from the Alternative Medicine Therapies guide.
Practitioners of TCM seek to promote or restore health by diagnosing and treating "disharmonies" or imbalances in the qi, or natural vital energy of the body. A typical TCM evaluation will include three components:
Because of this ancient symbolic method of describing the body in natural terms, a TCM diagnosis can sound like a weather report. Colds and flus may be described as "wind-heat invading the lungs," or "wind-cold affecting the stomach." Some kinds of endometriosis could be described as "damp-heat " in the "lower burner." An asthma patient might have "a failure of the kidneys to moisten the lungs." These descriptive diagnoses can lead some conventional physicians to conclude that TCM is "unscientific," whereas the actual practice of TCM is a sophisticated system based on the practical science of observing and altering the natural functions of the body.
Practitioners of TCM use tools such as acupuncture, massage, qigong, and herbal medicine to restore balance and health to the body. A change in diet may also be recommended. For example, if someone's condition is showing too much dampness and cold, the practitioner may suggest cutting out cold foods such as salads, and recommend drying and warming herbs for dietary support. If the condition is more a physical problem, such as an injury, the treatment may focus on the muscles, nerves, tendons, and circulation at the site of the injury, with acupuncture, massage, and anti-inflammatory herbs all being prescribed.
In fact, Chinese herbs are prescribed in most TCM practices. These remedies are often sophisticated and complex mixtures that were developed for organ imbalances and disease support--and standardized--centuries ago. Those most often used today have been carefully formulated to have minimal side effects.
Chinese herbs are available in the U.S. in liquid, tablet, or powder form and can be prescribed by practitioners familiar with the proper diagnosis of a particular condition. In China, some TCM practitioners specialize in herbal medicines and are expert at modifying and individualizing the classical herbal formulas. These practitioners can artfully construct a mixture from raw herbs or powders to treat disharmonies of the organs as well as any current symptoms.
If you plan to take Chinese herbs, make sure any mixtures you use have standardized content and are processed under the direction of a licensed health professional familiar with their medicinal effects. Individualized herbal mixtures should be prescribed only under the advice of a TCM practitioner who has training in herbal drug compounding. A TCM herbal mixture could be as safe as an over-the-counter cold and flu drug mixture, or as powerful as a strong prescription drug.