Traditional Chinese Medicine: what you need to know

Q: Is Chinese medicine safe to use in the treatment of arthritis?

A: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been around for thousands of years, but just because something has been around for thousands of years, doesn’t mean it works or it’s always safe. Please continue reading to find out what you need to know about TMC in the treatment of arthritis and pain.

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years. TMC is based on the belief that qi (the body’s vital energy) flows along meridians (channels) in the body and keeps a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health in balance. TCM aims to restore the body’s balance and harmony between the natural opposing forces of yin and yang, which can block qi and cause disease. Traditional Chinese medicine includes, but not limited to, acupuncture, massage, herbal therapy, tai chi.

Western vs TMC

Western medicine is routed in the scientific method; it’s very concrete and logical, focusing mainly on treating the disease. The key foundations of Western medical practice include:

  • Inquiry and examination of the physical body and its symptoms
  • A scientific, evidence-based diagnosis of health, using clinically proven treatments
  • Health as a human right that should promoted and protected

TCM doesn’t focus on science, instead it’s is based on theories of about qi (energy) and focuses on restoring balance, harmony, and energy in the body; TCM treats the person holistically.
In a Western setting, if TCM is used, it is often used in a complimentary fashion to mainstream medicine. Please see below some helpful information about acupuncture, tai chi, and herbal products.
Note: if you are considering trying TCM to help manage your arthritis and/or pain, please ensure you speak to your primary health care provider and discuss with them your TCM management plans.


Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, usually by inserting thin needles through the skin into ‘qi’ (energy) spots throughout the body. Studies suggest that acupuncture stimulates the release of the body’s natural painkillers and affects areas in the brain involved in processing pain; however, some trials suggest that real acupuncture and sham acupuncture are equally effective, indicating a placebo effect. Results from several studies, however, suggest real acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic, such as low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain.

What acupuncture cannot do is cure arthritis or other any other condition for that matter. Be wary of false claims – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Is Acupuncture safe?

The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner using sterile needles. However, sticking someone with a needle isn’t without its risks. Possible risks of acupuncture are the following: Bleeding (very minimal), bruising (very minimal, and soreness may occur at the insertion sites. Unsterilized needles may lead to infection. In rare cases, a needle may damage an internal organ, for example, cause a pneumothorax (i.e., a collapsed lung).

Tai Chi

Tai chi combines certain postures, gentle movements, mental focus, breathing, and relaxation. Research findings suggest that practicing tai chi may improve balance and stability in older people and those with Parkinson’s disease, reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis, help people cope with fibromyalgia and back pain, promote quality of life, and improve mood.

Is Tai Chi safe?

Yes, it’s safe. Since Tai chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, it’s generally safe for all ages and fitness levels. In fact, because tai chi is a low-impact exercise, it may be especially suitable for older adults (or any age really) who otherwise may not exercise due to pain, stiffness, reduced range of motion caused by arthritis.

Chinese Herbal Products

Chinese herbal products have been studied for many medical problems, including stroke, heart disease, mental disorders, respiratory diseases, and arthritis. Because many studies have been of poor quality, no firm conclusions can be made about their effectiveness.

Are Chinese herbal products safe?

Some herbs, including supplements and vitamins, may have potential side effects. These substances aren’t regulated by the government in the same way that mainstream drugs are (e.g., by the TGA or FDA). This means there’s not as much research on them. And, although many claim to be “natural,” this doesn’t always mean they’re safe. Ingredients, dosing, and manufacturing processes can vary widely from product to product, and it can be hard to know exactly what’s in them, for example, heavy metals, like lead, have been found in some TCM products. Furthermore, some herbs or supplements can have side effects or impact other medicine you’re taking. Please ensure to always check with your doctor first if you decide to take a supplement.

Do I use TCM or not?

Well, ultimately, that’s up to you – but best discuss it with your doctor first!

Western doctors want to see proof that something is safe and works well before they suggest you try it. That often makes it hard for them to recommend TCM. But overall, research and interest in TCM is on the rise, and if done safely, there is no reason why TCM can’t be used complimentary to western mainstream medicine.