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Traditional Chinese Medicine — the facts

14 October 2020 in Health

Contents

Written by: Alex Bussey
Edited by: Meera Senthilingam
Reviewed by the Your.MD medical team

Traditional Chinese medicine (sometimes called TCM) is a system of medicine that’s over 2,000 years old.

Practitioners believe that illnesses are caused by an imbalance of life energy (called Qi), which can be restored by balancing dark or feminine energies (ying) with light or masculine energies (yang).

But what’s the evidence to support these ideas? And are there health risks linked to them?

What is traditional Chinese medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine is a collection of mind-body practices that are used to treat a variety of health conditions — including heart disease, mental health problems or chronic pain.

It can be broken down into 3 separate categories:

Acupuncture
Where fine needles are pushed into your body to stimulate nerves under your skin. This is thought to help your body release natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.

Tai chi
An ancient martial art that combines deep breathing techniques with flowing movements. Practising tai chi is supposed to improve your balance, mood and help you to cope with chronic pain.

Chinese herbal medicine
Where herbal preparations and tonics are used to treat a number of medical conditions.

people practicing tai chi in a park or green open space

What does the evidence say about traditional Chinese medicine?

The health benefits of tai chi are supported by a range of scientific research, and health authorities like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) say that acupuncture can be used to treat certain types of pain.

But evidence supporting Chinese herbal medicine is more limited as studies have shown mixed results.

Acupuncture

Several studies show that acupuncture can help to reduce certain types of pain — including the pain from tension-type headaches and migraines.

But there’s less evidence to support the idea that acupuncture can be used to manage pain from conditions that affect your joints, muscles, teeth or bones.

A 2019 review of 14 studies investigating the impact of acupuncture to lower back pain found that acupuncture did reduce pain in people with non-specific lower back pain. This is where a clear cause of the pain can’t be identified.

And a review in 2018 found that acupuncture may have long-term benefits for conditions like osteoarthritis.

But some experts argue that more research is needed to establish whether it can be used to manage long-term (or chronic) pain.

Others also believe that acupuncture may work because of the placebo effect. This is where your belief in the treatment is what makes it effective, rather than the treatment itself.

woman undergoing acupuncture treatment

Is acupuncture safe?

Acupuncture treatments are normally safe, but it’s important to make sure that you’re treated by an experienced practitioner (or acupuncturist).

Side effects from acupuncture sessions aren’t common, but some people report pain or bruising where the needle punctures the skin, bleeding, drowsiness or feelings of dizziness and nausea.

If you're thinking of trying acupuncture, always check with your doctor that it's a safe option for you before you start.

Tai chi

Practicing tai chi is thought to improve your balance and protect you from falls, as well as improve mobility in people who have rheumatoid arthritis.

But claims that tai chi can help with chronic pain are harder to prove.

A 2016 study found that practicing tai chi for at least 6 weeks may help to reduce certain types of chronic pain — including back pain and the pain caused by osteoarthritis.

But a review from 2017 found that studies are often too small or poorly designed to provide reliable information. Many experts believe that more high-quality evidence is needed before tai chi can be recommended for chronic pain.

people practicing tai chi in a park

Is tai chi safe?

Tai chi is considered safe for people of all ages. It focuses on gentle movements and allows you to exercise without putting pressure on your joints and bones.

But you should speak to a doctor if you're pregnant or have a hernia, back pain or severe osteoporosis before you try tai chi. Some people report that tai chi causes minor aches and pains.

Is it worth trying tai chi?

Tai chi can improve your balance and protect you from falls, but it's difficult to say whether it can help with chronic pain.

If you have a long-term health condition, talk to your doctor before you start doing tai chi. They will be able to tell you whether it’s likely to help, and offer tips on practicing it safely.

Chinese herbal medicine

People who practice Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) believe that certain plants can be used to treat a range of conditions and ailments, including:

  • medical problems like bronchitis or heart disease
  • mental health conditions like depression
  • the side-effects of some chemotherapy treatments

But the evidence to support these claims is much more limited.

Chinese Herbal medicine - Astragalus slices, Huang Qi (Astragalus propinquus)

It's been reported that ginger, astragalus propinquus (Huáng Qí) and other herbs may help to treat some of the side-effects associated with chemotherapy drugs — including things like diarrhoea and vomiting.

But most trials are small, or show very mixed results.

For example, a 2019 study looked into the use of an herbal formula called Xiao Chai Hu Tang, which contains 7 different traditional herbs. This combination is often used to treat hepatitis B — an infectious disease that affects the liver.

But the authors of this study said that they couldn’t find enough evidence to support the effectiveness of this treatment, as most trials were very small or badly designed.

These findings were further backed up by European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which warns that research into Chinese herbal medicine is often flawed.

Experts also warn that some herbal preparations can cause serious side effects. Ma huang (Ephedra) is a good example. This herb is often used to treat asthma, colds and flu, but it's also a stimulant that can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which may increase your risk of stroke.

But some professional bodies believe that Chinese herbal medicine may be useful.

The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (RCOG) say that Chinese herbal medicines could have a role to play in treating painful periods (dysmenorrhea).

And the World Health Organization recently added traditional Chinese medicine to its list of recognised medical systems.

collection of Chinese herbal medicines on a white background

Are Chinese herbal medicines safe?

Chinese herbal medicines aren’t regulated like drugs that are prescribed by doctors and experts warn that there’s always a risk that they might contain harmful materials such as:

  • plant or animal material
  • drugs like warfarin, which thins your blood
  • heavy metals such as lead or mercury
  • pesticides
  • sulfites, which can cause a serious allergic reaction

Is it worth trying Chinese herbal medicines?

Evidence suggests some herbal remedies could help to treat certain medical conditions and reduce the side effects of some medications. But more testing needs to be done before these treatments can be recommended to the public.

If you’re thinking about taking a Chinese herbal medicine, always talk to your doctor first.

It may be dangerous to take medications or supplements that have not been recommended by your doctor, particularly if you have a medical condition or take other medications.

And be sure to get any medicines from a trusted supplier or TCM practitioner. Many herbal remedies are unregulated and products that are shipped from overseas may have been made in factories with very little quality control.

Key points

  • there are 3 main types or schools of Chinese medicine; acupuncture, tai chi and Chinese herbal medicine
  • there is some evidence to support the effectiveness of acupuncture and tai chi for certain conditions
  • the evidence for Chinese herbal medicines is more limited
  • you can practise tai chi to build balance and stability
  • studies on Chinese herbal medicines are often too small and unreliable
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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