The effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) encompasses a variety of herbal remedies and body-mind practices, such as acupuncture. Although popular in China and many other countries as a primary or complementary health approach, its effectiveness has not been studied. However, existing research suggests that many herbal remedies are effective in treating conditions such as constipation and fever.

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Chinese medicine doctor teaching Acupoint on human model. Image Credit: Tom Wang / Shutterstock

How is traditional Chinese medicine used?

TCM is estimated to be around 2,500 years old. In 2018, the World Health Organization officially recognized Traditional Chinese Medicine in its Global Medical Compendium. It was estimated that TCM served about 1 million patients in the United States in 1997, and this number is estimated to have increased since then in the United States and other Western countries. On top of that, herbal products are often sold as dietary supplements rather than prescription drugs.

Dietary supplements are subject to less stringent standards than prescription drugs, which may explain the relative lack of research into the effectiveness of TCM. In China, the use of TCM is often standard due to the low toxicity associated with it.

TCM includes a wide range of health interventions and is also a way of thinking about health and the body. Ancient TCM beliefs include the concept of the body being a smaller version of the universe, of the harmony between yin and yang, that all phenomena can be represented by the five elements, and that life energy called Qi circulates in the body and maintains health. Scientific research on TCM generally does not address these aspects of TCM, but rather focuses on the effectiveness or possible harm of the medical practices involved.

Practitioner making a traditional Chinese remedy.  Image Credit: Dragon Images / Shutterstock

Practitioner making a traditional Chinese remedy. Image Credit: Dragon Images / Shutterstock

TCM approaches and their effectiveness

The herbal medicine prescribed to TCM patients often varies even when the same condition is treated, making direct comparisons of efficacy difficult. However, meta-analyzes of studies comparing the effectiveness of TCM and Western medicine approaches such as IVF in the treatment of infertility have shown that TCM is twice as effective.

Treatment with Chinese herbal medicine continued for over 4 months led to clinical pregnancy rates of 60%, compared to 30% when using IVF for 12 months. The difference appears to be related to TCM’s use of menstrual cycle quality as a diagnostic tool. Additionally, TCM is often less invasive than Western medicine approaches, which can be important when considering conditions such as infertility.

One of the traditional Chinese patented medicines is an oral antipyretic liquid, which is used in children for its antipyretic effects. A study comparing this oral fluid to a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) commonly used in children found that the two drugs had similar effects on reducing induced fever in rats. Jinxin is made from a blend of herbal and mineral ingredients as opposed to the active ingredient in ibuprofen.

TCM has often been used as an adjunct to other medical procedures. For example, while most patients who have access to it use surgery or chemotherapy to treat cancer, many also supplement this with TCM. A certain herbal medicine traditionally used in TCM to treat thirst and general weakness has recently been prescribed to treat fatigue associated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that the use of this drug was effective in reducing fatigue associated with cancer treatment.

However, criticism of TCM is not uncommon. Studies have shown that the ingredients in herbal remedies are sometimes mislabeled and may contain extracts from endangered animals or poisonous plants in place of the advertised ingredients. Given the extent of TCM’s use and the scope of this trade, these unwanted ingredients can reach large numbers of patients and could have profound effects on the ecosystems from which they are extracted.

Another strong criticism relates to the difficulty of testing the effectiveness of TCM. TCM is personalized for each individual and is therefore rarely the same between two people, while doctors and scientists trained in Western countries tend to prefer evidence obtained from randomized clinical trials which generalize the guidelines for the disease. treatment of patients with the same disease.

This criticism has more to do with the underlying belief that one size fits all when it comes to disease causation and treatment. It remains to be established whether this hypothesis is valid when it comes to humans who exhibit incredible variations in their genetics, environmental conditions, and lifestyle choices. Instead of an either-or approach, scientists might consider developing alternative methods to test the effectiveness of TCM before promoting or condemning its use.

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