Chinese Medicine is a widely-used complementary therapy in the US today. A complementary therapy is any therapy that works well in conjunction with traditional Western medicine. That’s an accurate yet broad definition, so technically, most of us use all sorts of complementary therapies in our daily lives. That includes:
- Diet/nutrition therapy
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
- Herbal and other supplements
- Chiropractic work
- Massage Therapy
- Naturopathy (a type of medical practice that treats and prevents disease without the use of pharmaceuticals)
- Osteopathy (a type of medical practice that manipulates joints, muscle and soft tissue to treat medical problems)
Do you use any of these these therapies in your life? Congratulations! You use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Chinese Medicine, as we noted, is one type of alternative medicine. Within the broad umbrella of Chinese Medicine, though, are several main techniques and treatments. Some of them you’ve certainly heard of! I bet you haven’t heard of all of these, though; let everyone know what you’ve experienced in the comments!
1. Really Weird Herbs
Using herbs to treat illness and disease is very common in Chinese Medicine. Traditionally, your doctor would mix up a blend of Chinese herbs that is specific for you and your condition/s, and you’d go home and make a tea from those herbs to drink several times per day. Nowadays, most herbs are presented in pill form, as pills are quicker and easier to take; are usually taken more regularly; and, ahem, pills taste much, much better.
These herbs are not messing around, and truly, they taste terrible. Tried any “dragon bone” lately? That’s the ground-up fossilized bone of dinosaurs or mammals; and boy is it nasty in your average cup of tea. Or maybe some dried gecko or seahorse? It’s good for you! Hold your nose and drink quickly!
There are over 12,000 Chinese herbs used in medicines today; there are over 100,000 (!) recipes for herbal treatments and teas throughout Chinese history. As we said, most herbs are now given in pill form and these herbal treatments even have blends available for common conditions.
Most people have heard of acupuncture; over 10 million acupuncture treatments are administered each year, and acupuncture is more commonly covered by health insurance than nearly any other type of alternative medicine.
With acupuncture, an experienced practitioner uses tiny needles to pierce your skin at specific points on your body. The needles are painless; they are so thin that, if long enough, they can be tied into a knot. Acupuncture is both an art and a science; each person receives a completely personalized treatment plan for each session. Two people with the same symptoms can be given completely different treatments, if the practitioner determines that the cause of the symptoms is different!
There are many different styles of acupuncture. Some insert needles very deeply; other styles barely break the skin. Depending on the desired outcome, needles can be inserted and removed immediately, inserted and twirled in place- this feels a little strange, but it doesn’t hurt- or inserted and left in place for five to twenty minutes. Some styles use many needles; other practitioners use very few needles per session. Some practitioners stay in the room the entire session; for other styles, the acupuncturist leaves the room for ten or fifteen minutes at a time to let the patient relax.
3. Cupping and Gua Sha
Cupping has risen quickly in popularity. The marks that cupping treatments leave are visible at fifty yards, and usually on bare-armed or bare-chested athletes. People want to maximize their athletic performance whether they are weekend warriors, daily joggers, or Olympic athletes, so when cupping marks were *spotted* on Michael Phelps at the 2016 Olympics, curiosity about and appetite for cupping sessions increased dramatically.
In cupping, the Chinese Medicine doctor applies small glass cups to the desired part of the body. Suction is created either through applying heat to the inside of the glass cup (heat creates negative pressure, thus sucking the skin up into the cup), or in modern cups, using a pump to suck air out of the top of silicone-and-plastic cups. The suction separates tight tissue from the underlying muscle, connective tissue, and joints, which relieves pain and improves circulation. The cups are left on the skin for up to five minutes, then the practitioner breaks the suction and removes the cup. Alternatively, the practitioner can use oil on your skin to slide the cup around; this generally feels very good, as it’s pulling the skin away from the muscle. This relieves a lot of pressure and muscle tension.
Gua sha is similar to cupping, but it is a scraping method. A blunt, hand-size stone or plastic spoon (think the spoons in Chinese restaurants) is scraped across the skin. It leaves a mark similar to that of cupping; marks from either cupping or gua sha are painless, and are not bruises. With gua sha, the practitioner has more control over pressure and movement, and can be used on smaller or bonier parts of the body like palm of the hand or the inside of the elbow.
4. Tui Na, the Most Painful…
…abdominal massage you’ll ever have the privilege to endure. Oh dear, I believe I am supposed to call it “vigorous” massage. Yes. Vigorous. Very vigorous, indeed.
Tui na (pronounced “twee nah”), like gua sha and cupping, is intended to loosen dehydrated fascia and connective tissue from the surrounding muscles and joints. Like myofascial release in Western massage, this is very effective at improving circulation and relieving pain and muscle spasm. From a Chinese Medicine perspective, it also helps remove blockages, deficiencies, and imbalances in a person’s energy flow.
Tui na isn’t just abdominal massage; that’s just the most painful part. A typical tui na session is done on a mat on the floor, with the patient clothed, and tui na techniques can be done from head to feet.
5. Qigong and Tai Chi
Tai chi is a martial art based on the gentle techniques of qigong. Qigong is a Taoist moving-meditation practice. One of its main physical effects is to open up joints, which relieves pain and, over time, actually reduces that annoying crackling in certain joints. Qigong predates chiropractic medicine, first established in 1895, by about three thousand years, but the intent of putting space in the joints is the same. Maybe chiropractic was late to the game, but at least it got there, right?
Qigong is not an intense exercise. It’s a series of gentle movements that helps reduce the effects of aging, improves posture and balance, and creates a meditative state of mind. It is often prescribed by Chinese doctors for those suffering from chronic medical conditions or even mental health problems, as well being gentle enough to be suitable for the ill, very aged, and infirm.
Tai chi is a more vigorous activity, developed in the 16th century as a martial art. Like qigong, it’s based on the philosophy of Taoism, which focuses on being or acting naturally, as well as being one with nature. Tai chi is rather complicated; there are simplified styles of tai chi that are taught, but traditional styles contain 100 to 108 movements for one series. It is also more physically demanding than qigong as some styles require the practitioner to maintain a deep stance throughout the practice.
What Do You Think?
Which of these would you most like to try? I’d recommend the deer sinew as part of your herbal treatment, but I want people to like me so I’ll refrain.