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How to understand the difference between CM and TCM

People here in North America misunderstand that the difference between the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the conventional medicine (CM) is that the TCM uses acupuncture or herbs for the treatment, while the CM uses chemical drugs and surgery for treatment. They did not realize that the deference between these two major medical systems are much big than that. The two systems differ from the philosophy how to understand the structure and function of our body, the relationship between our body function and the nature changes, and to the ways to solve health problems.

Here are some simple examples to see the difference between the TCM and CM.

Example one: a car

The car represents our body.

In CM, if there is something wrong with the car, they will check every parts of the car to repair it. If they cannot repair, they replace it with a new part. All of the works are done by a specialized technician (a doctor). Nothing needed to participate by the driver.

However, In TCM, if there is anything wrong with the car, they will check every factor that is related to the use of the car: the driver’s skills and habit of driving, the road condition, the weather, the quality of the gas. They do not only pay attention to the mechanical aspect of the car.   They encourage the driver (patient) to maintain the car in a good condition during and after the drive (such as to prevent a disease by proper diet habit, sleeping pattern, proper exercise, etc.). They help the driver to drive the car on a road with proper road condition and drive in proper weather, etc. The technician (the doctor) comes into the care of the car only when the driver (the patients) cannot solve the problem.   

In clinic, the two medical systems work pretty much as above examples. CM pays more attention to the body structure. It searches body organs, the cells, the chemicals, and the gene of the body. They dream to solve health problem within the scope of the body.

On the other side, the TCM, for thousands of years, believe that our body is an integrated part of the universe and the nature. Any change in the nature, such as the weather, the season, the working environment, the personal relationship, all will definitely affect the function of our body. Only pay attention to the body structure is not all enough to ensure a proper function of the body.


Example two: watermelon

This tells how the two medical systems make their diagnosis.

 If we need to know if a watermelon is mature to eat or not:

For the CM, they have to cut a piece of the melon (lab test, X-ray, CT, MRI, biopsy), to tell if the melon is mature or not. The structure of the melon has to be opened (damaged).  

The goodness for this way is: it can tell precisely the extent of mature. However the weakness of such diagnosis is: if it is not mature, the melon cannot be kept for furthermore growth (damaged structure), since it has been open. Leave such structure opened melon on the field will only speed up its rotten.

On the other side, the TCM system tells the mature of the melon indirectly by looking at the size, the shape, the color on the surface of the melon, and tapping the melon between hands. The weakness of this way is: sometimes, though not always, it cannot tell exactly the level of mature. Advantage of the way is: If the melon is not mature yet, it can be left on the field for further growth, since the structure of the melon is not damaged. Additional weakness with TCM therefore is: the standardization of the mature is difficult. In clinic, it means that some TCM doctor may say it is 90% mature, and others may believe that it is only 79% mature. It also means that, the level of the diagnosis and treatment among TCM doctors are therefore largely variable.

In clinic, the TCM doctors make their diagnosis based on the collection of the history of the health problem, on the looking at the tongue and feeling the pulse of the patients. This procedure never causes additional damage to the patients (not like the damage from X-ray check…). In another words, there is no doctor-induced health problem with the TCM system.


Example three: classification

If we need to classify different items, there could be different ways to make the classification. If I ask you to classify a cow, a bound of grass, and a chicken into two groups, what you are going to do? (see Fig. 1).



 Fig. 1.


One way is to make the cow and the chicken into one group, and the grass, into another group. (see Fig. 2).


 Fig. 2.


Another way is to make the cow and the grass into one group, and the chicken, another. (see Fig. 3).


 Fig. 3.


If you make the chicken and the cow into one group and the grass into another, you are right. You follow exactly what you learned in school: the chicken and the cow belong to ANIMAL, and the grass, belongs to Plant. However, what information you can make by such classification?

If you make the cow and the grass into one group, and the chicken into another, you are right too. This is the way that exactly typical Chinese Medicine is doing. By such grouping, we can predict that, if one item changes, another item in the same group will also change. Here, if the grass is growing excellent the year, we can predict that the growth of cow is also very good this year. So we could have more supply of cow’s milk, more beef, and we can expect that the price for the beef may be lower this year too. Can we predict this from the number of chicken? Now you see, another way to classify items is to make items, that associated each other functionally, not structurally, into the same group.

This is how the Traditional Chinese Medicine does for our body.

In the Traditional Chinese Medicine, kidney, urine bladder, reproductive organs, bones, brain, teeth, ear, hair, all are in the same group. We call it the Kidney system. If we tell that the bone systems is weak, such as in osteoporosis, we can predict that the function of other items in the same group might be weak too at this movement. If not now, it will be soon or later. In clinic, if we use some therapy to enhance the function of the bone, it will mostly also be good for ear, for hair growing, for urination, for reproductive function, for memory (function of brain). This is because all of them are in the same group in the TCM.

You may feel this is stranger and feel hard to believe, but IT IS JUST AS IT IS in reality. Whatever the TCM tells us should be true in clinic and IT IS SO. The problem is that this is hard for the CURRENT science to explain. So, this is the job for scientist to tell us why. Wish that they can tell us. Research is their job. Clinic is our job.

Such functional classification is the base for Five Element Theory in the TCM, the Fire, the Soil, the Metal, the Water and the Trees (I don’t think that the word “wood” can really represent the meaning of that associated word in Chinese, so I choose to use the Trees in stead of the wood. For the same reason, I choose to use the word “Soil”, in stead of the word “earth”.).  We have separate articles to introduce the Five Element Theory in this web site. I myself have been a scientific researcher before for many years and I have been trying to deny such theory again and again, since it seems against what I learned when I was in school. However, I failed, not the Five Element theory fail, nor the Yin and Yang theory failed. Now I have to rely on such theory to manage my clinic work.


Now you may have a roughly idea about the difference between the CM and the TCM system?


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Millwoods Acupuncture Center
is located in Edmonton, Alberta Canada and serves the surrounding areas, including:
Edmonton, Saint Albert, Fort Saskatchewan, Lamont, Mundare, Ryley, Camrose, Viking, Big Lake, Red Deer, Calgary, Alberta Beach, Wabamun, Warburg, Breton, Thorsby, Rimbey, Ponoka, Elk Point, Kitscoty, Edgerton, Forestburg, Bashaw, Rimbey, Eckville, Mirror, Alix, Breton, Bawlf, Warburg, Clive, Marwayne, Vilna, Barrhead, Spruce Grove, Stoney Plain, Devon, Beaumont & Sherwood Park, Alberta Canada.



Millwoods Acupuncture Center
102, 2603 Hewes Way
Edmonton AB, Canada

Tel: (780) 466-8683

Operation hours:

 Monday to Friday:  9am to 6pm
 Saturday: 9am to 5pm