Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)

What it is

TCM is based on the idea of a connection between mind, body and environment to prevent and manage diseases.

TCM considers the person’s overall condition, not just their symptoms. TCM includes several different practices, including acupuncture, breathing and movement exercises called qi gong, movement exercises called tai chi, the practice of burning herbs near the skin called moxibustion, herbal medicine and foods.

What to expect

A TCM practitioner will take a case history and may do a physical examination. This could include looking at your tongue and taking your pulse (tongue and pulse analysis) to work out the flow of energy and imbalances in your body. Treatment is tailored to each person using a variety of therapies.


There is clinical evidence for the benefits of some aspects of TCM for people with cancer, while for other aspects the evidence is limited. See acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong and Chinese herbal medicine for further information.

Beliefs behind TCM

According to Chinese medicine and other medical systems from Asia, everyone has a vital energy or vital force known as qi (pronounced ‘chee’). When healthy, qi flows easily through the body’s harmony and balance is affected, causing disease.

Qi is made up of two opposite and complementary factors known as Yin and Yang. In TCM, the belief is that Yin and Yang are in everything. Yin is represented by water and Yang by fire. The balance between the two maintains harmony in your body, mind and the universe.

TCM also uses the theory of five elements – fire, earth, metal, water and wood – to explain how the body works. These elements correspond to particular organs and tissues in the body.

This information was last reviewed in May 2018
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