Western Medicine Vs Traditional Chinese Medicine – What’s The Difference?

Medicine is a tale as old as time. As long as humans have existed, so has medicine. 

Western Medicine Vs Traditional Chinese Medicine - What's The Difference?

Although medicinal practices have evolved dramatically since their inception, some elements have changed very little.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been around for centuries, and its approach has scarcely changed. TCM is recognised by the World Health Organisation, and it’s still practised today. 

Western medicine has fast become the ‘gold-standard’ for diagnosis, treatment and prevention, but how does it compare to Traditional Chinese Medicine, and does TCM really work? 

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine? 

Traditional Chinese medicine or TCM is an ancient system of wellness and health (see also: Best Chinese Medicine For Stomach Health And Digestion)that’s been practised in China for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese medicine is thousands of years old, and over the centuries, its practice has changed very little. 

This alternative medicine practice doesn’t just focus on treating your disease – it takes a long, hard look at your overall well-being and offers treatments that promote harmony, balance, and positive energy. 

There are two main concepts at the heart of TCM. These are: 

Yin And Yang 

These opposites are used to describe the qualities of qi. 

Yin represents cold, dark, feminine and negative, while Yang represents male, light, warm, and positive. 

Yin and yang are at the heart of the belief that everything in life requires a balance of opposites to work. TCM practitioners believe that this theory can also be applied to our bodies.

When we’re able to balance yin and yang, we are healthy and optimal. However, when yin and yang are out of balance, they can make us feel sick. 

This is why TCM practices aim to create this balance and harmony.


Qi can be described as vital energy that’s always circulating around the body. This vital energy or life energy is always moving and changing, and most treatments in TCM focus on maintaining and promoting the flow of qi. 

Many TCM practitioners believe that a qi deficiency is linked to the spleen, and it can be treated by resting and eating certain foods. 

What Is Western Medicine? 

Western medicine is a logical medical system in which different doctors and practitioners aim to treat the symptoms of your health issues with drugs, surgery, and radiation treatments.

Western medicine is the most popular healthcare system in the world, and it’s the type of treatment you’ll receive if you go to most doctors’ surgeries or hospitals. 

A doctor of Western medicine will pay close attention to your vital signs such as temperature, blood pressure, height, body weight and more, and assess these for signs of disease.

This is arguably the biggest difference between Western medicine and TCM. The Western approach separates the disease from your overall health, while TCM considers a balance between them essential for your treatment.  

Diagnostic Practices: The Differences 

Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine have very different approaches to diagnosis and treatment. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine Diagnostic Practices 

TCM practitioners see the world and the body in relation to five key elements: 

  • Water
  • Metal
  • Wood
  • Fire
  • Earth 

These elements are all an essential part of the qi life force energy in the body, and everyone has a unique balance of these elements.

Each element is associated with different colours, seasons and organs within the body. TCM practitioners believe that when these elements are out of balance, health issues occur.

TCM practitioners employ a range of therapies to help reintroduce a healthy balance and encourage the body to heal itself. 

TCM practitioners will observe qualities such as the patient’s shape, tongue, head, face, limbs, skin and spirit, and look for elements of abnormal performance. 

They may also assess aspects such as a patient’s voice, breath, vomiting or cough and use their own hearing to make a diagnosis.

TCM also relies on something called olfaction, where smell is used to detect abnormal odours to enhance their understanding of the disease. 

These practices combined with information about the patient’s habits can help TCM doctors diagnose a condition. TCM practitioners need to study for many years to have enough knowledge and experience to diagnose efficiently. 

Western Medicine Diagnostic Practices 

In Western medicine, the diagnostic process is a little different. 

The biggest difference in Western medicine is lab testing. Western medicine practitioners will run a series of laboratory tests depending on what symptoms you’re experiencing, and then use these test results to determine your treatment plan.

Lab tests are not used in TCM. 

However, some elements of the diagnosis are similar. Both TCM and Western practitioners use some physical elements to feel for abnormalities and use these to guide their approach to treatment. 

In Western medicine, these physical exams are often a little different and may involve checking blood pressure – something that’s not usually done in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Ultimately, Western medical doctors believe that viruses, bacteria or genetic disorders are at the heart of most illnesses, while TCM practitioners believe a disrupted flow of energy is responsible. 

Treatments In TCM And Western Medicine 

Western Medicine Vs Traditional Chinese Medicine - What's The Difference?

The treatments in TCM are also vastly different to Western medicine. 

TCM Treatments 

Some of the most popular treatments offered in traditional Chinese medicine include: 

  • Exercise such as tai chi and qi gong 
  • Nutritional changes
  • Herbal medicines
  • Acupuncture and acupressure
  • Chinese massage 
  • Moxibustion 

Depending on the diagnosis, TCM practitioners may recommend combining a variety of treatments together for the best results. 

Western Treatments 

Although some Western practitioners will recommend elements of TCM (such as exercise and nutritional changes) in their treatment plans, treatments are often more specialised and can include: 

  • Prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications
  • Blood tests
  • X-rays 
  • Imaging scans
  • Chemotherapy or radiation therapy 
  • Surgical procedures 

These treatments are offered with the aim of preventing or curing disease, diagnosing conditions, and slowing or preventing the progression of a disease. 

The Limitations Of Traditional Chinese Medicine 

Although traditional Chinese medicine is recognised by the World Health Organisation and many of its treatments have proven benefits, (see also: Mushroom Health Benefits For Fertility – What You Need To Know)it doesn’t come without critics. 

Many argue that because TCM is not rooted in science, it should not be recommended in mainstream health care.

As of yet, modern science has not been able to identify concepts such as Qi in our body, which leads many to believe that traditional Chinese medicine is nothing more than folklore. 

However, many elements of TCM (especially acupuncture) are used throughout the world to treat and relieve pain when Western medicine struggles to help. 

The Limitations Of Western Medicine 

Although Western medicine treats the diseases, it doesn’t treat the person. TCM looks closely at each aspect of the body and how this may affect the disease, but this approach isn’t really used in Western treatments. 

However, by directly targeting the disease, Western medicine is able to encourage faster healing and stop the progression of certain diseases. 

The Bottom Line 

While Western medicine focuses on treating the disease, traditional Chinese medicine focuses on treating (see also: Menopause: How To Treat It With Chinese Medicine)the person.

TCM also looks closely at the whole body and its treatments are rooted in beliefs around energy, while Western medicine relies on science and an exclusive focus on the exact ailment. 

Although both practices are recognised by the World Health Organisation, Western medicine remains the most prevalent practice. 

Clare McAfee
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