Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction

  • December 1, 2020
  • 5 minutes read

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is no longer considered an old person’s remedy as the treatments it espouses receive positive results gradually. Such is the efficacy of TCM treatments that even hospitals have recognised its effectiveness by setting up facilities offering acupuncture.

TCM practitioner Huang Li Xia, of Ma Kuang Chinese Medicine And Research Centre, says, “TCM and Western medicine have their own strengths, theories and principles. The good thing about TCM is its natural treatments address health conditions in the body, mind and spirit. Chinese medicine plays a vital supporting role in medical treatments and it’ll be good if TCM and Western medicine can work together for a truly complementary approach to a patient’s wellness.”

TCM originated more than 2,000 years ago, and its techniques revolve around the main concept of a vital life force, known as ‘qi’, that flows through our body along channels called ‘meridians’. TCM is based on the belief that the smooth flow of qi maintains healthy physiological activities and two opposing but complementary energies, ‘yin’ and ‘yang’, must be balanced for that to happen. Likewise, a disharmony between the energies will cause illnesses to emerge. A weakened qi indicates poor-functioning organs and causes pain.

Pain can be treated by restoring the flow of qi in your body. Physicians need to understand your lifestyle before recommending a range of treatments in line with your body constitution. Treatments include Chinese herbs, cupping, tuina, acupuncture, moxibustion and scraping.


Chinese medicine is mainly plant-based, but also includes animal products and minerals. It seeks to directly rejuvenate your qi through consumption. The herbs are categorised into cool, warm, cold and hot types — even sweet, bitter, sour, salty and pungent tastes indicate cooling or heaty properties. The prescribed herbs complement each other and the combination counteracts what your body is lacking.

If you’re seeking treatment from both TCM and Western doctors, it’s important to inform them about the medication you’ve been prescribed to avoid a possible clash in medicinal properties, which might adversely affect your health.


In Chinese, ‘acupuncture’ (‘zhenjiu’) is an umbrella term that refers to needling and moxibustion.

However, in regular usage, acupuncture describes the insertion of thin, sterile needles into acupoints along the meridian to remove obstruction of qi. You should only feel a slight tingling sensation during the usually 30-minute session.

Needling is effective for a range of conditions, such as chronic pain, nausea, depression, hypertension, headaches and arthritis, just to name a few. Hospitals have also seen more stroke patients coming for acupuncture needling treatments.

Moxibustion and needling target specific acupoints. However, moxibustion is a heat therapy and therefore tackles illnesses arising from coldness or excessive yin energy.

Indirect moxibustion is the burning of a dried mugwort (moxa) stick or cone over your skin to generate heat and dispel the dampness and pathogenic influences in your body. It is suspended 3cm to 4cm above your skin to invigorate the qi. Direct moxibustion is no longer a popular practice because it causes burns on the skin.

It is said that moxibustion can aid in breech presentation during pregnancy, but there are concerns of complications. Similarly, people with mild hypertension and heart diseases can undergo needling and moxibustion, but severe conditions put them at high risk of complications as both treatments increase blood circulation.

People with severe hypertension, heart disease or who are pregnant should seek second opinions from their physicians.


In place of needles, tuina uses the hands to press and knead into acupressure points to remove blockages along the meridians, thus improving the flow of qi. Many health issues are due to blockages of qi, which cause pain, swelling and toxin accumulation. Such massages release muscle knots and reduce tension; at the same time, the skeletal structure is checked for correct bone alignment to ensure the nerves are functioning well.

Even children as young as eight months old can attend paediatric tuina sessions to improve appetite, treat diarrhoea, asthma and rashes. However, people with a suspected bone fracture, severe spine injury, malignant tumour, pregnancy or with cancer should not undergo tuina treatments.


Cupping is recommended for deep body pains as cups are used to create a vacuum over the targeted acupressure point. The suction on the skin reaches deep into underlying tissues to encourage blood circulation and relieve pain and fatigue. It can treat flu, cold and rheumatism as it extracts dampness as well as encourages weight loss by aiding digestion and excretion processes.

There are several kinds of cupping, such as gliding cupping, fire cupping and cupping with acupuncture. As cupping can accelerate the healing response, even athletes have adopted this therapy of muscle recovery during training. This was clearly displayed at the last Olympics in Rio, when several internationally renowned swimmers were seen with circular marks on their bodies.

For milder body pains, gua sha, or scraping, is used instead of cupping. In this form of treatment, your skin gets rubbed (gua) in downward strokes to incur light bruising. The result is a scratched (sha) effect on your skin, with blotchy coloured abrasion marks. Gua sha has been known to offer immediate relaxation and pain relief. It can also prevent asthma, bronchitis, flu and cold, and reduce fever and detox the body.

The colour of the abrasion in scraping and circular marks in cupping is an indication of your body condition. For instance, purple means a persisting condition, brown means dehydration, while dark red indicates heatiness.

People with diabetes, sensitive skin, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and those who are menstruating or pregnant, should not try cupping or gua sha.


Huang, who graduated from the Singapore College of TCM, identifies a few of the many acupoints that you can locate to relieve discomfort quickly. As a guide, each acupressure session you administer should be two seconds per press and repeated for 30 times in roughly one minute. You should feel a numbing sensation and slight pain — do not press excessively hard!

He Gu This acupressure point can offer relief for many kinds of conditions. You can alleviate headaches, swelling of the eyes, nosebleeds, toothaches, mumps, sore throats, deafness, facial paralysis, excessive perspiration, abdomen pain, constipation and infrequent menstruation cycles. On the back of your hand, trace the bones of your index finger and thumb downwards till you reach their fleshy webbed intersection. Not using much of the tip, press your other thumb onto that intersection. Likewise, you can also align the knuckle line of your thumb with the web of your other hand and bend your thumb down to find the He Gu point.

Zhong Wan This acupressure point is located four fingers’ width above your belly button. You should use your thumb or the knuckle to apply pressure on this point for 10 seconds repeatedly over three minutes. This can help in asthma, jaundice, stomach bloatedness, burping, gastric pains, nausea, acid reflux, poor appetite, indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation and bloody stools.

San Yin Jiao Regular sufferers of menstrual pain should definitely locate this spot. It is located three fingers’ width above the interior ankle bone. Using the tip of your thumb, press down and massage onto the acupressure point to maintain health of the womb and ovaries, regulate periods and ward off menstrual cramps. It can also reduce skin conditions such as pigmentation, wrinkles, acne, skin allergies, dermatitis and eczema. You’ll have to massage on the point every day for three months before seeing results. Each session should last three to five minutes.


To complement the DIY massages, Huang recommends some recipes to tackle common ailments among the masses. It is important to maintain the portions as changing the dosages can cause unwanted effects.

Menstrual Pains: A concoction of rose buds and water before your period can relieve menstrual cramps. Simply soak 30g of rose buds for five to eight minutes in hot water. Drink three to five days before your period starts and stop consumption during your period as it will cause a heavier flow. Treatment sessions should go on for three  before reviewing its effects.

The Three ‘Highs’: High cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar are common triggers for deteriorating health in Singapore. If you suffer from these conditions, you can drink 200ml of hawthorn oolong tea at least three times a week, twice a day. In 600ml of water, cook for 30 minutes oolong tea with 15g of hawthorn, 15g of Chinese privet, 9g of red sage and 20g of winter melon skin.

Strong Bones and Joints: Prior to cooking, soak 100g of soybeans for six to eight hours. In 1,000ml of water, simmer 250g of pork bones over a small fire till they are soft. Then add the presoaked soybeans, salt to taste, 20g of fresh ginger and 200g of rice wine. Boil till the soybeans are soft. You can take 200ml of this soup every week in the long term to build strong bones.

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