Steeped in thousands of years of history, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a combination of practices such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and exercise: is it for you?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) differs from Western medicine in a variety of ways – while TCM is based on pre-scientific theories of cause and effect, Western medicine relies heavily on scientific methodology. TCM views the patient as a small part of a greater universe; that our health is reliant on the balance of our tissues and organs, as well as our life force – our qi. Western medicine sees illness as being caused by the introduction of a foreign element such as a germ or a cancer cell, while TCM views illness more as an imbalance between different bodily organs or systems. The concept of yin and yang – the opposing but complementary forces that shape all life – is also central to TCM, as are the five elements: earth, metal, water, fire and wood.
Because of this, diagnosis and treatment is more holistic than Western medicine, while the focus is more on health maintenance than treating disease. “It’s macro versus micro; tune-up versus repair,” says Dr Yifan Yang, TCM practitioner and CEO of the Sydney Institute of Chinese Medicine (sitcm.edu.au).
The doctors are in
Dr Yang studied TCM for eight years at Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China, gaining first his Bachelor degree and then his Masters in TCM. He then worked as a TCM doctor at the Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou University until he migrated to Australia in 1989. He has been teaching at the Institute since 1990 and practising at the Sussex Chinese Medicine clinic in Sydney since 1992, and has seen a wide variety of health complaints over his 20 year practice. “I cover the same kinds of patients a GP would see,” he says.
Dr Vicki Kotsirilos is a GP, the founder of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association and the co-author of A Guide to Evidence-Based Integrative and Complementary Medicine.
“I think there is a lot of merit in what TCM practitioners are doing,” says Dr Kotsirilos. “There is level-one scientific evidence that acupuncture works.
“There are not many studies on herbs, although there was one high quality study from Australia which demonstrated that Chinese herbs can help in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome.”
TCM practitioners most commonly use herbal remedies and acupuncture in their treatment of a wide variety of conditions.
“Acupuncture is effective for muscular skeletal disorders and herbal medicine is effective for other diseases such as bronchitis, digestive disorders, gynaecological disorders and skin diseases,” says Dr Yang.
Other practices in TCM include cupping (applying a heated cup to the skin to create suction), Chinese massage, dietary therapy and mind-body therapies such as qi gong and tai chi.
TCM can also be effective in the treatment of arthritis, chronic fatigue, asthma, polycystic ovarian syndrome and infertility. It can even be used in the treatment of psychological conditions such as depression, for which Dr Yang recommends “acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine and meditation or yoga”.
East meets West
While TCM and Western medicine differ in many ways, there is also the potential for them to work together in harmony.
“I believe the best medical system in the world is a combination of Chinese and Western medicine,” Dr Yang says.
Dr Kotsirilos integrates medical acupuncture into her practice. The difference between TCM and medical acupuncture, she says, is that she uses a Western, pathology-based method of diagnosis, whereas a TCM practitioner would diagnose differently.
“They would look at your tongue, take a history,” Dr Kotsirilos says. “They might say that your liver is overheated or your kidneys are dampened.”
A recent international study from the University of Queensland and Peking University, Beijing, found that TCM could help in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Study authors Dr Sanjoy Paul and Professor Lilong Ji found that conventional drugs were significantly more effective when used alongside traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Dr Yang also cites a 2006 study from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, which found that in the treatment of stage III stomach cancer, the five year survival rate was 53 per cent with herbs and chemotherapy.
“At that time the highest worldwide survival rate was about 30 per cent with conventional medicine only,” he says.
Dr Kotsirilos points out that more studies need to be done. “Most studies on TCM are from China, and so it is hard to assess their quality,” she says.
There can be risks associated with the use of herbal medicines. A 2012 study from Murdoch University in Western Australia found that some Chinese medicines contain potentially poisonous plants, unlabelled ingredients and even body parts of endangered animals.
“There is serious concern about the quality of imported herbs,” says Dr Kotsirilos. “There have been case reports where imported herbs have been tainted with heavy metals, where patients have developed heavy metal toxicity from imported herbs.”
The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration only regulates herbs manufactured in Australia.
“There are Australian regulations to control the import and export of animal products,” Dr Yang claims. “I think things such as deer horn products are still produced and used in Australia, but nowadays TCM practitioners do not use illegal animal products in Australia.”
When it comes to Chinese herbs, there are some contraindications for certain people, Dr Kotsirilos says. “They should be avoided in young children; while people with renal or liver failure, and people who are on a lot of medications or have a serious disease should also avoid Chinese herbs.”
Until more studies are done, it’s unlikely that Western medicine will fully embrace the potential powers of traditional Chinese medicine. But Dr Yang believes there is much to support.
“It is true that some TCM methods are not supported by modern, evidence-based medicine, but modern, evidence-based medicine is not perfectly mature yet,” he says. “I believe many TCM methods will be scientifically supported if modern medicine develops for another 500 years.”
Since July 2012, Chinese medicine practitioners have to be registered under the national registration and accreditation scheme with the Chinese Medicine Board of Australia and meet the Board’s Registration Standards in order to practise in Australia. To find out if a TCM practitioner is registered, go to the national practitioner register at ahpra.gov.au.
Some private health funds offer rebates for Chinese Medicine treatments such as acupuncture. Check with your fund for details.