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How Does Chinese Medicine Work?


Probably one of the most challenging aspects for patients to grasp is how Chinese Medicine actually works. Here we will try to go through some of the basic ideas to give you a better understand of the processes behind Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine has evolved for over 3500 years. Chinese Medicine is an experiential medicine. This means that it has been learned and perfected by practice rather than theory. Slowly over time the medicinal value of herbs were learned, acupuncture meridians were mapped and the complex theories of the medicine were developed. Billions of people have used Chinese Medicine. Comparatively, Western Medicine with its few hundred years of history is young and relatively untested.

What often confuses people is the language that Chinese Medicine uses when describing the way that it works. Terms like ‘Qi’ and ‘Yin & Yang’ and ‘elemental fire’ etc can sound a bit esoteric and strange to a Western ear. What you have to remember is that this is a traditional medicine, developed over thousands of years and so the descriptions may sound a bit ‘old world’ but this does not mean that they are untrue. Scientists are working hard to try and explain Chinese Medicine with modern scientific terminology and there are already many studies where Chinese Medicine theories can be shown using Western science. This East-West translation will continue but in the meantime it is important that patients are not put-off by what sound like strange or mystical terms.

The fundamental difference in approach between Western and Chinese Medicine is the way that it looks at the body. Western science is focused on the microscopic view, looking in extreme detail at the chemical and structural makeup of the body. It treats disease by trying to isolate the microscopic processes involved and using synthesized drugs or mechanical surgery to affect these processes. It is a very direct medicine and can be very quick acting and effective but can also simply treat the symptoms and not the underlying causes of illness.

Chinese Medicine on the other hand looks at the body with a wider perspective, incorporating physical, emotional and psychological factors into one view of the whole body. Chinese Medicine also takes into account external factors such as lifestyle and environment. It then combines all this information to understand the individual pattern of illness in the patient and uses herbs, acupuncture, massage and lifestyle advice to reverse this pattern and bring the patient back to a state of good health. It can be fast acting or the process can require time, but the effects are long lasting and deal with the underlying causes of illness.

So which is the better medicine? Neither. Both are valuable. If I am in a car accident then I would want to be brought to a Western Medical hospital to treat any acute or life-threatening injuries. However, as part of my rehabilitation I would also like to use Chinese Medicine to relieve my back pain and Chinese Herbs to calm any post-accident emotional anxiety. The great news is that Chinese Medicine can be safely used in combination with Western Medicine as long as you see a properly qualified doctor. At AcuMedic, we are constantly treating patients who are receiving Western Medical treatment.


+ QI

Central to the theories of Chinese Medicine is the concept of Qi (pronounced chee). But what actually is it? If we took microscopic tweezers and picked you apart atom by atom then we would be left with just a small heap of dust. What gives this dust life? Qi is the VITAL ENERGY that makes you a living, breathing creature as opposed to just a pile of inanimate atoms. Qi is not just inside you. It’s everywhere. We take it from the air that we breathe and the food that we eat (this is why your diet is so important). Every time that you feel happy you are receiving more Qi and when you are sad your Qi flow is reduced (this is how emotions affect health). Exercise in fresh air will get your Qi moving, laziness and bad posture will make it stagnate. In order to be healthy you need lots of good quality Qi to be flowing freely through all of your organs. If you have a blockage of Qi, or your Qi tank is low then you start to get ill. Acupuncture and Massage help to unblock the Qi. Chinese herbs provide a targeted source of premium quality Qi directly to your body. Qi Gong is an exercise used to harness and promote the flow of Qi. This discipline has been taken to an incredible level by Shaolin monks that are able to use the power of Qi to perform mind bending demonstrations.

Apart from Qi (of which there are many types), Chinese Medicine places equal importance on blood, body fluids, bodily functions and the health of your internal organs when diagnosing and treating a patient. The Chinese Medical doctor also uses other theories such as 5 Element, Zang Fu and Yin and Yang in order to treat their patients. To find out more about these concepts please visit our bookshop.


Qi flows through your body with your blood as well as along discreet pathways known as Acupuncture Meridians. According to Chinese Medicine, if you are ill in any way (physical, emotional or psychological) then this can be caused or lead to a blockage or stagnation in the flow of Qi in your body. Acupuncture uses micro fine needles inserted along special points along the meridians in order to clear these blockages and stimulate the flow of Qi. This begins to reverse the pattern of illness and helps the body to cure itself. Modern science has shown using brain scans that acupuncture stimulates a brain response which leads to the release of powerful neurotransmitters to help pain relief and affect mood. This is only a small part of what acupuncture can achieve and more scientific studies are ongoing to try to explain the way acupuncture works from a Western viewpoint.


Food and drink is the first type of medicine. Consuming different foods will have varying effects on your body and your health. This may seem obvious but this is the basis of herbal medicine. Over 3000 years, the Chinese have been meticulously experimenting with thousands of herbs and documenting the effects that they have on the body. Chinese Medical doctors have been testing how herbs work in combination and looking at how different herbs have different reactions to different people depending on their physical and psychological make up. With all of this vast knowledge, an expert Chinese Medical doctor can individually prescribe the exact combination of herbs to treat your conditions in a much more detailed way than Western pharmaceutical drugs.

Conventional drugs are often derived from herbs but the difference is that Western Pharmaceutical companies will synthesise a chemical version of what they consider to be the active ingredients. The purpose is to create a stable and identical pill that they know will have a specific effect on a body process. This form of medicine is young and has not gone through the same exhaustive experimentation process as the thousands of years of Chinese Herbal Medicine. Western drugs do not take into account the differences between people and pay less attention to the importance of balancing the effects of an active ingredient using a combination of medicinal compounds like those found in nature. Having said this, Western drugs can be very useful for short term treatment.


It is very rare for your GP to take the time to discuss your lifestyle, emotions, relationships etc. This is because Western Medicine is based on a structural view of the body. If there is something wrong then they will try to find the structural/chemical problem and fix it. Chinese Medicine does not see you as a machine separate from your environment but rather as a psycho-emotional and physical person that is intrinsically connected to your environment. Things like your job, the weather, your relationships and your lifestyle all play a major part in your health. Chinese Medical treatment will always take into account these factors and tailor treatment around them as well as offering lifestyle advice to encourage you to take back some control of your wellbeing.


Chinese Medicine uses Tuina massage, acupressure, cupping and guasha to help to stimulate the flow of Qi through the body and clear any stagnation. This can help with musculoskeletal problems and physical injuries but, because the massage is based on the same principles of Chinese Medicine, it can be used to work on whole variety of physical, mental and emotional conditions. These techniques can also be used with acupuncture for a more effective treatment.


The power of Chinese Medicine can also be used to delay the external signs of ageing and treat skin conditions. Chinese cosmetology is a specialist branch of Chinese Medicine that primarily treats the skin by improving the internal health of the patient. Things like removing excessive dampness, heat or toxins from the body as well as improving the flow of Qi and blood to the skin will have a dramatic effect on the skin. This is often coupled with external herbal treatments and facial massage to provide intense nutrition and toning for optimum skin. To find out more please read our Cosmetology Guide.

Chinese Medicine is an extremely complex form of medicine. It often takes about 10 years of study to become a properly qualified doctor. This article is just a very basic glimpse into the way that Chinese Medicine works. To find out more, we would recommend visiting our bookshop.