by Melissa Carr, B.Sc., Dr.TCM

Many people think that medicine that involves sticking people with sharp objects and prescribing them to drink foul-tasting herbs would fade out and disappear once other medical options became available. Instead, Traditional Chinese Medicine’s following continues to grow, with more and more people joining the ranks.

Why? Because it works. And all practitioners can take advantage of some of its principles.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has four dominant strengths that have helped it continue to benefit so many:

  1. TCM is founded on relatively unchanging observations from the natural world.
  2. TCM addresses the causes of health issues, not just the symptoms.
  3. TCM recognizes that each person is different, and acts accordingly in prescribing treatment.
  4. TCM educates about prevention and whole person wellness.

The Natural World

If someone were to be instantly transported from 3,000 (or even 300) years ago to today, chances are they would not recognize much. Our modern world of text messages, internet, and advanced medicine would have seemed unfathomable. But, nature, essentially, is very much the same. While, yes, we have genetically-modified plants and many of the creatures of the past are now extinct, we still have hot and cold, night and day, wet and dry, seasonal changes, and so forth.

One reason why TCM is still valid today is that its foundation involved carefully observing nature and natural events, and then extrapolating that information to help understand human function and dysfunction. The result is a complex and complete medical system that allows for a deep understanding of the connections between the details we can observe or ask and the imbalances that result.

For example, many have experienced a worsening of arthritis symptoms when the weather gets cold and rainy. “It’s going to rain,” she says, “I can feel it in my joints.” For a long time, that was thought to be an old wives’ tale. TCM calls it “Damp-Cold” arthritis. As it turns out, scientists have now determined that changes in the weather—the barometric pressure, to be specific—can be felt as an increase in joint pain for those who are susceptible.

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Clinical Tips

Consider the season, the weather, and environment when giving advice to patients. When making nutritional suggestions, try to emphasize seasonal foods that are locally available. Think also about other seasonal recommendations that can be made. For example, if it’s cold out and a patient tends to feel cold or worse in cold weather, recommend soups and stews, suggest warming spices like cinnamon, and tell those patients to bundle up appropriately. These simple recommendations may seem small, but simple is also doable and can be impactful.

Root Cause over Branch Symptom

Pharmaceuticals rule supreme when it comes to treating symptoms. They can often act quickly and effectively. The problem is that the symptom often returns, or new symptoms arise, sometimes as a result of their use.

TCM calls this treating the “branch” symptom. Treating the branch doesn’t alter what happens at the root. Treating the root, however, usually does affect the branch. This is why, for example, when a patient comes in to have headaches addressed, a TCM practitioner often delves into questions about seemingly unrelated aspects, like emotions, sleep pattern, temperature preferences, and food cravings.

Clinical Tips

When it comes to getting to the root of health issues, functional medicine has followed long-standing medicine systems like TCM in creating timelines and tracking back to when the main health issues started. Those who practice functional medicine or a holistic health practice already know the importance of digging down to find the source. Even if the condition seems muddled, and it’s unclear what caused or when the illness started, try to get as close as possible.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Let’s go back to that headache patient in the root and branch section. Say the patient has stabbing pain frontal headaches that come on at nighttime. A TCM practitioner prescribes an herbal remedy to address it. Should the patient share that herbal formula with his spouse who gets dull aching occipital headaches when she first wakes up? Or how about his friend who has band-around-the-head tension headaches brought on by stress?

Hint. The answer is in the subheading.

Nope. TCM would prescribe different remedies particular to each individual’s needs. The prescription also changes depending on the individual’s development as treatment progresses.

Clinical Tips

After being in practice for a while, it’s easy to start to bundle everything as being caused by toxins, liver dysfunction, leaky gut syndrome, microflora imbalance, food or environmental sensitivities, post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other oft-discussed health topic. While these may certainly be part of the condition for many of patients, they will affect each of those individual patients differently. Remember to be specific to each individual when prescribing treatments or recommendations.

Long-term investment in health

One of TCM’s ancient textbooks states that if you follow the rhythms of nature and eat, drink, move, and live according to some basic principles, you can live to at least 100 years old. That was a big claim to make at a time when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today.

Furthermore, TCM considers, not surprisingly, quality of life, not just quantity. Lifestyle recommendations and treatments aim to support each person’s overall sense of physical and emotional wellness.

Clinical Tips

While patients often book in to see their health professionals only when they feel unwell, it’s valuable to remind them that checkups and tune-ups will help them stay well for longer. They understand the value of oil changes for their cars and dental checkups for their kids, so it’s not too much of a stretch to remind them to attend to their health even before problems arise. Try to get them to book in for a follow up visit before they leave because, in all likelihood, they will otherwise forget. Many will be used to booking teir next haircut, personal trainer visit, sport or show tickets, or vacation well in advance, so it isn’t too much to get them to put their health as a priority.

More TCM

For those who want more in-depth clinical knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it’s hard to fully understand how to assess and treat without enrolling in a complete program. Sometimes other health professionals ask a TCM practitioner, “What’s the best point for [X condition or symptom]?” Or, “How does TCM treat [X condition or symptom]?” These questions are tricky to answer, as it depends on the individual patient. Generalized recommendations can sometimes be given, but for those wanting to offer more than basic tips, look for a qualified program that teaches Traditional Chinese Medicine, not just acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a treatment modality, not a medical system on its own. To understand how to use acupuncture, one has to understand how to diagnose using TCM. Anything else is dry needling or intramuscular stimulation, which are also valuable treatments, but they are not acupuncture.

Another option is, of course, to refer to a qualified acupuncturist, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, or oriental medicine practitioner. States and provinces have different titles and requirements for licensing, so find out if there’s a regulating body for TCM that can clarify for the district of practice.


About the Author

Dr. Melissa Carr is a registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine with 16 years of clinical practice and a B.Sc. in Kinesiology. In addition to using acupuncture, Chinese herbs, supplements, biopuncture, and nutrition to treat pain, digestive issues, stress, fatigue, migraines, and more, Dr.Carr is also a natural health and nutrition consultant, lecturer, and writer. Click here to learn more.