Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) | Cancer Research UK
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What traditional Chinese medicine is

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a system of medical care that developed in China over thousands of years. It looks at the interaction between mind, body and environment, and aims to prevent and cure illness and disease.

TCM is based on Chinese views and beliefs about the universe and the natural world. It is a very complex system. On this page we can only give an outline of what TCM involves. It is very different to Western medicine. Chinese medicine practitioners believe there is no separation between mind and body and all illness of any kind can be treated through the body. They use a combination of various practices that may include

  • 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

TCM practitioners say that TCM can help to

  • Prevent and heal illness
  • Enhance your immune system
  • Improve your creativity
  • Improve your ability to enjoy life and work in general

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 TCM involves

Diagnosis is a complex process in TCM and involves looking at you as a whole individual and the environment in which you live. The remedy treats the whole person and not just a single health problem.

On your first visit, your practitioner will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle, diet, relationships and medical history. This first visit is usually about 60 to 90 minutes. Your practitioner needs time to diagnose your problems and then to decide on which treatments you need.

The TCM practitioner uses hearing, touch, sight, smell and questioning to help them diagnose. They will also do a physical examination, which may 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 colour and complexion
  • Watching your body language
  • Feeling your pulse (heart rate)
  • Examining your skin and nails
  • Feeling your abdomen
  • Smelling your skin, breath or urine
  • Feeling the temperature of your skin
  • Listening to your breathing and how much you talk
  • Pulse taking is a very important part of diagnosis in TCM and may involve checking up to 200 or so pulses in the wrist and arm. It is not as simple as when a doctor or nurse takes your pulse.

Most treatments involve acupuncture and herbal remedies which you usually make into a tea. Your practitioner will tell you how to do this. They will also probably advise you on diet, exercise and relaxation techniques such as

They 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.

If you feel ill or your symptoms get worse before your next appointment, you should contact your practitioner or doctor. You can also report any harmful side effects you have from herbal remedies to the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). If you are worried, stop taking the herbal medicine and see your own doctor.

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.

If you are having any problems, it may help to look in our complementary therapy section for information about difficulties with your practitioner, changing your therapist, or stopping therapy.


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.

Rather than looking at the medical effects, a TCM practitioner measures how well treatment works by looking at

  • How the patient feels
  • The balance of their yin and yang

TCM involves several types of treatments. We can’t outline all the research into these treatments here. But you can look at evidence for individual therapies used in TCM in our sections about

  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal medicine
  • Massage

Most research so far has focused on acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies. Some studies suggest that acupuncture may be useful for a number of different conditions, but we need more research. There is some evidence that some herbs used in Chinese herbal medicine may help to control the symptoms of cancer or side effects of treatment. But most studies have been of poor quality and so we can't be sure how reliable they are. Further research is currently under way.


Possible side effects of TCM

Because TCM involves several types of treatment we can’t list all the possible side effects here. But you can look at the possible side effects of individual treatments in our sections about

  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal medicine
  • Massage

Safety advice for TCM

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. 

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulates the registration of herbal products in the UK. You can find information on its website about  

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. It is important to use only herbal products that are 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 regulatory Agency (MHRA) states that 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. The MHRA website has information about herbal products that contain undeclared medicines or heavy metals.

It is safest to buy plant remedies from a fully qualified herbal practitioner who is trained to work out which herbal medicines are appropriate for you. They can also trace where their herbs and plants come from. Lower down this page is information about finding a herbal therapy practitioner.


Who shouldn’t use TCM?

If you have any medical conditions, including cancer, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, you must check with your doctor before starting any type of TCM. 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. 


The cost of TCM treatments

It is very important that you have your treatments with a qualified practitioner. Your first consultation will usually cost between £30 and £70 an hour. Later appointments are usually shorter and may cost less. You also have to pay for the herbs that you are given. Treatments are usually more expensive in bigger cities.


Finding a TCM practitioner

In theory, anyone with little or no training can set up a TCM practice. But traditional Chinese medicine practitioners 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. 

It's vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified. At the moment the best way to find a reliable practitioner is to contact the Health Professions Council and ask for a list of recognised TCM practitioners. 

You can ask your TCM practitioner

  • How many years of training they've had
  • How long they've been practicing
  • If they have treated cancer patients before
  • Whether they have indemnity insurance (in case something goes wrong)

Useful organisations

Some of the complementary therapy organisations can give information about TCM. You can also get information from the organisations below.

Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture UK
Suit 12, Brentano House
Unit 5 The Exchange
Brentcross Gardens
London NW4 3RJ
Tel: 020 8457 2560
Fax: 020 8457 2560

The UK professional body for practitioners of Chinese herbs (often combined with acupuncture). Only qualified and professionally insured practitioners are eligible and accepted for membership. They have a register of members – see below.

Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine
Office 6
27 Castle Meadow
Tel: 01603 623994

Maintains a register of practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine.

Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
184 Kennington Park Road
SE11 4BU
Phone: 0845 300 6184

An independent, UK health regulator. Sets standards of training, performance and conduct for health professionals, including music therapists, herbal therapists and drama therapists. Keeps a register of qualified therapists.

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Updated: 5 February 2015