What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use various mind and body practices (such as acupuncture cupping and tai-chi and herbal products to address health problems.
How Much Do We Know About Traditional Chinese Medicine?
The approaches that make up traditional Chinese medicine (such as acupuncture cupping and tai-chi and herbal products) have been the subjects of many clinical studies and scientific reviews.
What Do We Know About the Effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Some mind and body practices used in traditional Chinese medicine practices, such as acupuncture cupping and tai-chi, may help improve quality of life and certain pain conditions. Studies of Chinese herbal products used in traditional Chinese medicine for a range of medical conditions have had mixed results.
What Do We Know About the Safety of TCM?
Some Chinese herbal products have been contaminated with toxic compounds, heavy metals, pesticides, and microorganisms and may have some side effects. Manufacturing errors, in which one herb is mistakenly replaced with another, also have resulted in serious complications.
What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, usually by inserting thin needles through the skin. Studies suggest that acupuncture stimulates the release of the body’s natural painkillers and affects areas in the brain involved in processing pain; however, some trials suggest that real acupuncture and sham acupuncture are equally effective, indicating a placebo effect. Results from a number of studies, however, suggest real acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic, such as low-back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis/knee pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. For more information, see NCCIH’s acupuncture fact sheet.
Tai-chi combines certain postures, gentle movements, mental focus, breathing, and relaxation. Research findings suggest that practicing tai-chi may improve balance and stability in older people and those with Parkinson’s disease, reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis, help people cope with fibromyalgia and back pain, and promote quality of life and improve mood in people with heart failure. For more information, see NCCIH’s tai-chi fact sheet.
Chinese Herbal Products
Chinese herbal products have been studied for many medical problems, including stroke, heart disease, mental disorders, and respiratory diseases (such as bronchitis and the common cold), and a national survey showed that about one in five Americans use them. Because many studies have been of poor quality, no firm conclusions can be made about their effectiveness. For more information about specific herbs, see NCCIH’s Herbs at a Glance Web page. You can find additional information on botanical (plant) dietary supplements on the Office of Dietary Supplements Web site.
What the Science Says About the Safety of Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Reports and studies of herbal products used in TCM have found a variety of safety issues. Some Chinese herbal products have been found to be contaminated with undeclared plant or animal material; drugs (such as the blood-thinner warfarin and the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agent diclofenac); heavy metals (such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium); pesticides or compounds called sulfites, which could cause asthma or severe allergic reactions; or incorrect herbs, some of which have caused organ damage.
Relatively few complications from using acupuncture have been reported. Still, complications have resulted from the use of nonsterile needles and improper delivery of treatments. When not delivered properly, acupuncture can cause serious adverse effects, including infections, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and injury to the central nervous system.
Tai-chi and a similar technique called qi gong appear to be safe practices. While it’s unlikely that tai-chi will result in serious injury, it may be associated with minor aches and pains. Women who are pregnant should talk with their health care providers before beginning tai-chi, qi gong, or any other exercise program.