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Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Fair and Balanced

Philosophy of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Is your body a machine or a garden? It depends on your point of view. In TCM, everything is described in terms of nature.

By John Russo Jr./

VICUS.COM (18 July 2000) -- Susan Push is a registered nurse who is licensed in acupuncture and certified in hypnosis and visualization. True to her area of specialization, she has a wonderful insight into Traditional Chinese Medicine and the ability to clearly compare and contrast it to Western medicine.   

Symposium proceedings

What: "Nursing in the New Millennium: High Tech/High Touch," The Johns Hopkins Nurses' Alumni Association
Where: Baltimore, Md.
When: June 9, 2000
Details: Each year, in June, The Johns Hopkins Nurses' Alumni Association offers a one-day continuing-education seminar as part of homecoming weekend. The topic this year was "Nursing in the New Millennium: High Tech/High Touch." Through lectures, workshops and posters, a range of complementary therapies were presented and discussed within the context of modern nursing practice. covered the conference.

Her lecture at the Johns Hopkins Nurses' Alumni Association symposium titled, "Nursing in the New Millennium: High Tech/High Touch" on June 9, 2000, in Baltimore, Md., clarified and crystallized the basic differences in philosophies that distinguish the approaches of each discipline to health care. 

Push, who maintains the Life Cycles Acupuncture Center in Parkville, Md., and is an education specialist at Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore, Md., reviewed the basic perception of the body as viewed from TCM. Push, a R.N., M.P.H., L.Ac.,  then compared yin and yang, provided insight into the organ systems and gave an overview of the basic tenets of diagnosis in TCM.  

Her presentation is a primer for anyone with a Western background who is interested in learning about TCM. A summary is provided here.

Is your body a machine or garden?

In Western medicine, according to Push, the body is viewed as a "machine." It has working parts that are replaced as they become worn out or break. One 17th century physician even likened the body to a well-made clock.

In the Western world, reality is "matter." It is solid and it can be touched. This view is established early in the training of Western medical health-care professionals and is exemplified in many common mechanistic analogies to human body parts. For example, the heart is described as a pump, the lungs are considered bellows and the nervous system is viewed as an elaborate telephone network. 

In TCM, by comparison, everything is described in terms of nature. For example, the body is viewed as a garden, and health-care professionals are more closely analogous to gardeners than to craftsmen. As such, gardeners understand that if their garden receives too much water, it becomes soggy and the plants die. Too little water causes plants to wither. Too much shade will stunt growth, etc.

In TCM, the health-care professional works as a "gardener" to maintain homeostasis of the garden, and their patients are considered to be an integral part of the Earth. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls us.

Yin and yang

To understand TCM, it is important to realize that in the body, a constant balancing of yin and yang exists, which must be in harmonious balance for wellness to be present. 

Yin and yang should not be viewed as dominant and submissive forces. Rather, yang is the active force that moves qi (chi), the energy force, through the body. Yin, by comparison, is similar to blood (although it is much more than that in TCM). Yang is needed to move yin, but if yang is weak, it will lack the energy needed to move yin, which then becomes stagnant and leads to blockage and pain, which can be physical, psychological or a combination of both. Table 1 compares the patterns of yin and yang. It includes corresponding physiological patterns as well as constitutional and diagnostic patterns. 

Organ systems in TCM

It is not possible, if we are limited to a Western perspective, to fully understand organ systems in TCM. For example, blood in TCM differs from our Western perception, in that it goes beyond the functions that we generally attribute to body fluids to include an energetic principle. There are also organs in Chinese medicine that do not have names in Western medicine, such as Triple Burner (the division of the torso into an upper, lower and middle section, each with their corresponding functions: respiration, digestion and elimination).

In TCM, body organs have a psychological function as well as a physiological function. For example, a person who is experiencing frustration leading to anger is considered in TCM to have a liver disorder. This is beyond the traditional Western view of the liver functioning to detoxify substances in the body.

Diagnosis in TCM 

Finally, as an introduction to TCM, Push provided an overview of the eight guiding principles in making a diagnosis in TCM  (Table 2).  

The process starts with an assessment of cold and heat (i.e., retarded or accelerated metabolic activity) and continues with an assessment of a state of deficiency or excess (hypofunction or hyperfunction) of an organ or other factors. The process moves on to assess whether the condition is internal (affecting deeper layers of tissues and function) or external (affecting superficial layers). Finally, there is assessment of yin and yang.

John Russo Jr., Pharm.D, is senior vice president of medical communications at He is a pharmacist and medical writer with more than 20 years of experience in medical education.

Editor's note: Thanks to the Johns Hopkins Nurses' Alumni Association for making the events accessible to



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