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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.

Summary

  • It is a combination of various treatments
  • TCM remedies treat the 'whole' person
  • Some herbs may interfere with other cancer drugs you are taking

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

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.

Why people with cancer use it

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.

How you have it

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 skin, eyes, tongue, feeling your abdomen and checking your pulse. 

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.

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.

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.

Side effects

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. 

Always check with your cancer specialist before you take any herbs or chinese medicine. 

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.

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.

A Cochrane review of 29 studies suggested that moxibustion might help to reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, however further research is still needed in this area.  

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

How much it costs

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

Your first consultation will usually cost between £40 and £90 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.

A word of caution

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

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
  • are currently taking cancer medication

You can read more about the safety of complementary and alternative therapies on our information page. 

Last reviewed: 
05 Dec 2018
  • Moxibustion for alleviating side effects of chemotherapy or radiotherapy in people with cancer

    Zhang HW and others

    Cochrane Database Systematic Review. November 2018.

  • 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 November 2018.

  • Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)  website
    Accessed November 2018

  • 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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