You’ve heard about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and its benefits, but what exactly is it, and how does it work? Here’s a comprehensive overview of this effective healing approach.

Misha was diagnosed with a flea allergy. His person, Karen, didn’t want him taking drugs, so she turned to an integrative veterinarian who recommended incorporating Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) therapies into Misha’s care. Although Karen had heard of TCM, she didn’t really know anything about it, so she was initially skeptical.

Her response isn’t unusual. We may be familiar with TCM, but how does it work? How do practitioners diagnose disease, and why are the treatments so different from Western medicine?

History and philosophy

The earliest evidence of TCM dates back to the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th centuries B.C.). At the time, both TCM and its veterinary counterpart, often referred to as Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), were developing side by side. This should not come as a surprise, because people relied on animals for transportation, food and assistance with work. Ensuring the health of animals was as important as ensuring the health of human citizens.

During the following centuries, TCM underwent further expansion and refinement. The Huang Di Nei Jing, written between 475 and 221 B.C., is still regarded as an important document today; it details many basic theories of TCM and continues to be read by many students.

The philosophy of TCM is deeply rooted in Taoist teachings. These teachings encourage an understanding of the natural world and its influence on the body. One of the central ideas of Taoist philosophy is the concept of opposing but mutually dependent forces, Yin and Yang. These two forces represent opposite ends or aspects of everything, but can never exist without each other. The gentle balancing of these forces creates and maintains life. Without this balance, bad things occur, such as natural disasters or disease. A TCM practitioner is taught to recognize and manipulate these two forces within the body to maintain or restore balance.

TCM versus Western medicine

Western medical philosophy is frequently reductionist. This means doctors and scientists like to break things down into their smallest possible parts in order to understand how they work. The human or animal body is divided into organ systems, then individual organs, cells, molecules, etc. By learning about the subtle interplay of chemicals within the body, Western doctors then use synthetic chemicals to treat disease. If the anatomy is deemed abnormal– for example, a growth in the liver – surgery is performed to remove the abnormality or repair the anatomy to a form that is considered “normal”. Unfortunately, the result is more commonly symptom relief rather than an actual cure of disease.

Traditional Chinese Medicine looks at the body and symptoms of disease as one large picture of disharmony. No one aspect of the body can exist without the others. Using this approach, it is possible for a TCM practitioner to diagnose an internal disease in a patient with red eyes or skin rashes. The body is seen as a microcosm of nature with the same complicated intertwining of systems. Each system has a function, and its function depends on the balanced interplay with all surrounding systems.

This holistic view of the body allows a TCM practitioner to not only address symptoms but also attempt to fundamentally alter the balance within the body. Symptoms can be treated, but the practitioner is always striving to restore the delicate balance of Yin and Yang. If balance is restored, symptoms should not return and no further treatment is needed. This is known as treating the “root” of the problem, not just the “branch” (symptoms).

The five branches

TCM encompasses five branches of treatment. Which ones are used depends on the type and severity of the unbalance. Diseases that are acute (symptoms just started to appear) or not very severe can often be treated with a few branches of treatment, such as an herbal formula and change in diet. Long term problems, however, may require treatments from all five branches over a long period.

1. Herbs – In TCM, herbs are usually not prescribed singly but are combined into formulas. Each herb is carefully selected for a different purpose. Formulas may consist of only three or four herbs, or more than 20. Because there are thousands of different combinations, subtle differences in symptoms and disease disharmonies can be addressed.

Herbal formulas are not meant to work like pharmaceutical medicines, which create strong and rapid effects in the body. Instead, their effects are gentle and slower, but the underlying purpose is always to help restore balance in the body. They do not necessarily work directly to abate symptoms, but rather fix the underlying problem so symptoms simply go away on their own.

2. Acupuncture – The placement of needles in specific points (acupoints) stimulates the nervous and cardiovascular systems and helps restore proper circulation. TCM practitioners use these points to alleviate obstructions in the flow of vital substances. While it is commonly used to treat pain and arthritis, acupuncture can also be used to treat other diseases such as skin conditions, behavioral problems and inflammatory bowel disease.

3. Tui-Na – This modality translates as “push and pull” and involves massage techniques to stimulate and soothe the body. Using a series of movements and manipulations, a Tui-Na practitioner can stimulate the flow of vital substances much the way acupuncture needles can. Special movements can be used specifically at acupoints, or treatments can be used over the entire body. Because they are considered gentle, these techniques are especially useful for very young or old patients.

4. Food therapy – The saying is true: “you are what you eat.” Depending on the patient’s diagnosis, a TCM practitioner will prescribe certain foods intended to treat the underlying imbalance. Each food item has a specific action on the internal environment, much the way an herbal formula would. Some foods cool, others warm, and some are used to capture and remove toxins. Food therapy is another gentle therapy and can be used daily. For conditions that are not severe, food therapy can be an effective stand-alone treatment.

5. Exercise – TCM exercise includes activities such as Tai chi and Qigong. These exercises are meant to not only move the body but also stimulate the mind. Dogs are not likely to start forming Tai chi groups, but exercise is no less useful and therapeutic for them. A slow methodical walk on a daily basis is an important part of treating canine arthritis. Swimming and gentle stretching exercises used in rehabilitation are also good options for dogs.

TCM has a long history of use in China, and for many centuries, was the only option for treating disease. This medical philosophy has withstood the trials of time, and continues to offer effective treatment options.

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