Q:  What exactly is Chinese Medicine, and how could it help me manage my health?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the second most used form of healthcare in the world, and with a history of more than 2000 years, chances are that you have probably heard about it from a friend or doctor or may have seen it featured on a popular talk show like Oprah. When people think about TCM, acupuncture is what is most often comes to mind, but Chinese Medicine is much more than acupuncture, utilizing herbal medicine, tuina (a form of massage), moxibustion (a heat therapy), cupping (glass/plastic cup suction therapy), and food therapy/nutritional counseling.

Acupuncture is most associated with the treatment of pain but can be used for much more. The reason is that TCM is unique in its classification of disease, diagnostic methods and treatment principles. TCM has a unique way of clinically diagnosing and treating patients by observing the distinctive interaction of pathological and physiological changes and interrelationships in the body. TCM can treat a wide variety of conditions either alone or as part of a complementary approach. So while pain may be most discussed, be aware that acupuncture can also help with conditions ranging from insomnia, to headaches, to infertility to allergies.

In addition to acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine is often used. Chinese herbal medicine is unique in the way a prescription is formulated. In contrast to other forms of herbal medicine that use single herbs with the same function, Chinese herbalists construct formulas that contain anywhere from 4 to 15 herbs. The manner in which it is delivered depends on preparation. Pre-made formulas such as pills or extracts do not require any patient participation in preparation, are easily taken, and most affordable. The downside is they cannot be modified as the condition changes and are the least potent.

Granulated herbs, or a powdered extract, are another way of preparing a traditional formula. Herbs can be mixed individually and formulas are easily customized for the patient. All that is required by the patient is they mix the powder in water and digest.

The traditional method of preparing herbal medicine is to make a tea, or decoction. The practitioner weighs out raw herbs and bags of herbs are given to the patient to be cooked at home. This method can be time consuming as it requires patient compliance and participation, but is the most potent way.

No matter which of the above methods are used, all require them to be taken typically three times a day.

Herbal expense depends on the form which it is given, how many herbs are in the formula and each herbs individual cost. Some herbs are rare or time consuming to cultivate which limits availability and affects price.

To become a practitioner of TCM, students can choose from the more than 20 private schools in the US to take on an intense 3-4 year graduate program to earn a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine. The graduate degree is a prerequisite to the national exams mandated by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), followed by each states individual requirement to practice legally. Practitioners are also required to complete 60 PDA's (professional development activity, same as a continuing education unit (CEU) every 4 years in order to remain nationally certified with state recertification varying state by state.

To find a qualified practitioner of TCM in your area you can visit the NCCAOM website http://nccaom.org where you can search by name, address, state, zip and credentials. Another great practitioner locator site is http://acufinder.com. Not only does this site allow practitioners to have a free listing but many have personal pages with more information about them and their practice.

Scott R. Smith L.Ac, Dipl. OM, is a graduate of Southwest Acupuncture College with a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine.  He is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, making him a Diplomate in Oriental Medicine. He also holds an active Oriental Medicine license in PA.  Aside from running a full-time private practice in Rapid City, SD, Scott enjoys writing and has been published in The Journal of Chinese Medicine, Chinese Medicine Times, Acupuncture Today, The American Acupuncturist, QI Journal and The Lantern. He can be reached at srsmithom@gmail.com