Oriental Medicine

Here are some brief descriptions about Oriental medical terms and methods.  These are meant to be a quick introduction to the concepts only.  The reader is encouraged to pursue further readings.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) & Oriental Medicine (OM)

TCM is a holistic healthcare system with over 2,000 years of history.  It has continually evolved to meet various medical needs in different times and places.  It combines acupuncture, herbs, massage, and lifestyle changes to bring balance and health.  Its philosophical concepts are based on the principle that diseases should be regarded in the context of both the physical and emotional sides of patients and their interaction with their environment. 

In a healthy person, there are sufficient amounts of qi (loosely translated as energy or bioelectricity) and blood, and their flow in the body is smooth and unobstructed. When an imbalance is introduced in the body, whether for external or internal reasons, the qi and blood may become deficient or stagnant, and cause a wide range of illnesses. 

To help the patient, a western medical doctor would identify the agent (bacteria, virus, etc.) or tissues involved in the disease and treat them with drugs, surgery or other means. A TCM practitioner would identify the parts of the body which were too weak or in disharmony that led to the illness, and strengthen and balance the area in relation to the rest of the body while treating the current symptoms.  In other words, the primary focus of TCM is to harmonize and restore the body so that it can help itself against sickness. 

Over the years, TCM has spread to other Asian countries where it was further developed, reflecting each country's unique culture and history.  You will often see "Chinese-style," "Japanese-style," "Korean-style" or some other uniquely specified acupuncture and herbal styles.  Nevertheless, they all share the TCM root.  The term Oriental Medicine includes all styles and unless you are focusing on the differences, TCM and OM can be used interchangeably in most circumstances.  


Acupuncture is one of the most widely practiced forms of alternative therapy.  Thin needles stimulate certain points located on the surface of the skin. While mostly painless, this treatment can bring profound physiological changes that promote better health and balance in life. 

Increasingly widespread in the West during the past 40 years, acupuncture has been scrutinized by the scientific and medical communities. Several studies have shown effectiveness of acupuncture under various conditions.  Please refer to the FAQ for more information. 


Herbs evolved into a healing art in China through observation and usage. This knowledge was compiled, refined, and passed down for several millennia. In the West, typically a molecule is identified or engineered for treatment of a particular condition and is mass produced in laboratories. In contrast, Chinese herbs are selected from a variety of natural sources and after a thorough diagnosis, a customized combination is prepared to enhance therapeutic effectiveness. The herbal prescription is based on the philosophy that the root of the problem must be addressed as well as the manifesting symptoms. 


Moxibustion, or "moxa," is a form of heat therapy.  Carefully processed herbs (typically mugwort) are burned on or very near the surface of the skin. The theory and techniques involved can be complex but the goal is to influence the flow of Qi or to expel pathogenic factors from the body.  There are several ways of doing moxibustion.  In the US, direct moxibustion (the herb is in direct contact with the skin) is rarely done as it can leave a scar.  Instead, indirect techniques are used such as stick-on moxa (a shield is placed between the burning herb and the skin), and moxa pole (densely packed herbs are burned close to the skin).  Due to the smoke it generates in the process, herb-infused charcoal formed into convenient shapes is also popularly used.

Tui Na

Tui Na is a therapeutic form of massage.  Similar to the previous techniques described, it aims to promote harmonious flow of Qi throughout the body, bringing it back to balance.  There are many hand techniques in Tui Na that resemble other forms of massage.  The biggest difference may be the use of the meridians and other TCM concepts.  It removes blockages and promotes smooth flow of energy through the meridians and tissues to balance the yin and yang aspects of the body.  Tui Na massage typically focuses on a specific area, but can also be applied throughout the body especially when general well-being is the primary focus of the treatment. 


During a cupping treatment, a vacuum effect is created in glass cups (plastic, bamboo, silicon and ceramic cups are also used) by using either flame or a bulb/pump.  The skin gets pulled up, forcing the tissue underneath to loosen up and the pores to open.  Through this process, the practitioner tries to break up the tension in the area, and if needed, pull the pathogenic factors out of the body.   The downside of this process is that it can leave circular bruises for several days after the treatment.  Until recently, it was often a challenge to recommend cupping therapy because of the marks.  Thanks to Michael Phelps the task has gotten much easier!  Depending on the condition and the patient, the amount of time the cups are left on the body can vary.  Several cups may be used at the same time.