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Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a system of medical care that developed in China over thousands of years.

Practitioners of TCM believe there is no separation between mind and body. They look at the interaction between mind, body and environment.

It is very different to Western medicine and uses a combination of various practices including:

  • herbal remedies (traditional Chinese medicines)
  • acupuncture or acupressure
  • moxibustion (burning moxa – a cone or stick of dried herb)
  • massage therapy
  • feng shui
  • breathing and movement exercises called qi gong (pronounced chee goong)
  • movement exercises called tai chi (pronounced tie chee)
  • diet

Practitioners say that it can help to:

  • prevent and heal illness
  • enhance your immune system
  • improve your creativity
  • improve your ability to enjoy life and work in general

TCM is a very complex system of medical care. We only give an outline of it below.

Beliefs behind TCM

According to traditional Chinese belief humans are interconnected with nature and affected by its forces. The human body is seen as an organic whole in which the organs, tissues, and other parts have distinct functions but are all interdependent. In this view, health and disease relate to balance or imbalance of the functions. TCM treatments aim to cure problems by restoring the balance of energies.

There are important components that underlie the basis of TCM. 

Yin-yang theory is the concept of two opposing but complementary forces that shape the world and all life. The balance of yin and yang maintains harmony in your body, mind and the universe.

Qi (pronounced chee) energy or vital life force flows through your body along pathways known as meridians and is affected by the balance of yin and yang. It regulates our spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health. If there is a blockage or imbalance in the energy flow  you become ill. TCM aims to restore the balance of qi energy.

The 5 elements – fire, earth, metal, water, and wood – is a concept that explains how the body works and the elements correspond to particular organs and tissues in the body.

The TCM approach uses 8 principles to analyse symptoms and put particular conditions into groups – cold and heat, inside and outside, too much and not enough, and yin and yang.

What it involves

Diagnosis is a complex process and involves looking at you as a whole, including the environment you live in.

Remedies treat the whole person, not just a single health problem.

On your first visit, your practitioner will ask you general questions about your health, lifestyle, diet, relationships and medical history.

Your practitioner will also use hearing, touch, sight and smell to help diagnose you.

They will do a physical examination, which might include:

  • looking at your tongue (each area of your tongue relates to a different organ in your body)
  • looking in your eyes
  • looking at your skin and complexion
  • examining your skin and nails
  • feeling your pulse (heart rate)
  • feeling your abdomen and the temperature of your skin
  • listening to your breathing and how much you talk
  • watching your body language
  • smelling your skin, breath or urine

Taking your pulse is a very important part of diagnosing you. The process won’t be as simple as when your usual doctor or nurse does it. Your TCM practitioner might check up to 200 pulses in your wrist and arm.

Most treatments involve acupuncture and herbal remedies which you usually make into a tea. Your practitioner will tell you everything you need to know.

They will probably also advise you on diet, exercise and relaxation techniques such as:

  • meditation
  • qi gong
  • tai chi

The first visit is usually about 60 to 90 minutes long. Your practitioner will probably recommend that you go back for another appointment in about 2 to 4 weeks time.

How long you go on seeing your practitioner will depend on why you are using TCM.

Contact your practitioner or doctor if you feel ill or your symptoms get worse before your next appointment. Stop taking your herbal medicine and see your own doctor if you are worried.

You can also report any harmful side effects you have from herbal remedies to the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Your relationship with your TCM practitioner is very important. They must create a safe environment for you to have treatment. If you don’t feel comfortable with anything that your practitioner does, it is important to discuss it.

Possible side effects

TCM involves several types of treatment, so we can’t list all the possible side effects here.

We have more detailed information about individual therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine or massage.

Before you have herbal medicines

Many people assume that because a product is marketed as natural or herbal, this means it’s safe to use. Some Chinese herbal medicines are safe but others can have serious and dangerous side effects.

Some herbal medicines may interact with treatments from your doctor, including cancer drugs or radiotherapy. Or they may affect the way drugs are broken down by your body, or the way drugs are carried around your body. 

Companies making herbal products bought over the counter in health food shops and pharmacies have to meet quality standards.

They also need to provide information about their product, including the exact content and dose of the product and how safe it is.

In Europe it is important to only buy products registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies that are registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulates the registration of herbal products in the UK. They state there is a big variation in how unlicensed traditional Chinese medicines are made. Some have been found to contain illegal substances and toxic herbs. These substances may not be listed on the packaging of the product. The amount of the active ingredient can also vary widely between products.

It is safest to buy herbal remedies from a fully qualified herbal practitioner who is trained to work out which medicines are appropriate for you. They can also trace where their herbs and plants come from.

Research into TCM for people with cancer

TCM is a complex system. So it is very difficult for western doctors to test whether it works for treating or preventing cancer. It is even more difficult to test TCM using randomised clinical trials, and compare the results to conventional medicine. As TCM is tailored to the patient, it can't be tested by giving a group of patients the same medicine for a certain amount of time.

Instead of looking at the medical effects, a TCM practitioner measures how well a treatment works by looking at:

  • how you feel
  • the balance of your yin and yang

Most research into TCM has focused on acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies.

Some studies suggest that acupuncture might be useful for a number of different conditions, but we need more research.

There is some evidence that some Chinese herbal medicine might help to control cancer symptoms and side effects. But, most studies have been of poor quality, so we can't be sure how reliable they are.

TCM involves many treatment types, so we can’t list all the available research into each one here.

We have more detailed information about individual therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine or massage.

Who shouldn’t use TCM?

You must check with your doctor before you start to have any type of TCM if you:

  • have any medical conditions, including cancer
  • are pregnant or breastfeeding

Some herbs may interfere with other drugs you are taking so it is very important to let your doctor know about anything you are given by a TCM or herbal practitioner.

Taken in large quantities, some herbs can cause miscarriage. 

What it costs

It is very important to only have your treatments with a qualified practitioner.

Your first consultation will usually cost between £30 and £70 for an hour. Treatments can be more expensive in bigger cities.

Further appointments are usually shorter and might cost less.

You also have to pay for the herbs that you are given.

Finding a practitioner

It's vital that you have treatment from a properly trained and qualified TCM practitioner. TCM and herbal medicine practitioners are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council. Most reputable acupuncturists and herbalists are also members of a recognised association.

Contact the Health Professions Council and ask for a list of recognised TCM practitioners.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

Get more information about TCM from one of the organisations below. Or, contact one of the complementary therapy organisations listed in our resources and books section.

The professional body for practitioners of Chinese herbs in the UK (often combined with acupuncture).

Only qualified and professionally insured practitioners are eligible and accepted for membership. They have a register of members.

Suite 12, Brentano House
Unit 5 The Exchange
Brentcross Gardens
London NW4 3RJ

Tel: 020 8457 2560
Fax: 020 8457 2560
Email: info@atcm.co.uk

Maintains a register of practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine.

RCHM
Office 6
27 Castle Meadow
Norwich
NR1 3DS

Tel: 01603 623994
Email: herbmed@rchm.co.uk

An independent, UK health regulator that keeps a register of qualified therapists. It sets standards of training, performance and conduct for health professionals, including music therapists, art therapists and drama therapists.

184 Kennington Park Road
London
SE11 4BU

Phone: 0300 500 6184

Last reviewed: 
05 Feb 2015
  • An analysis of the long-term therapeutic effect of the integrated therapy of traditional Chinese medicine and radiotherapy on abdominal malignant tumor.
    J Hong and others
    Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2005 Volume 25, Issue 2

  • An attempt to integrate Western and Chinese medicine: rationale for applying Chinese medicine as chronotherapy against cancer.
    K Seki and others
    Biomedicine and  Pharmacotherapy. 2005 Volume 59 Suppl 1:S132-40.

  • European Herbal Practitioners Association (EHPA) website 
    http://www.ehpa.eu/
    Accessed Jan 2013

  • Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)  website
    Accessed Jan 2013

  • The Directory of Complementary Therapies
    Traditional Chinese Medicine pgs 152-159
    Consultant Editor  C Norman Dhealey MD,PHD,
    Ivy Press Limited, 2000 

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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