What You Need to Know About Traditional Chinese Medicine

You’ve probably grown up hearing about TCM but is it a viable branch of medicine and is it safe?

Traditional Chinese Medicine commonly shortened to TCM has been around for more than three millennia. Its practice includes herbal medicine, acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, tui na (massage), tie da (bone setting), qi gong (exercise) and diet therapy. TCM focuses on qi, the body’s vital energy, that moves through channels called meridians with connections to organs and bodily functions. 

Regulation of traditional Chinese Medicine

It is classed as a form of alternative medicine in Malaysia and is regulated by the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Division of the Ministry of Health of Malaysia. In fact, practitioners of TCM should register with the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Council and if all criteria are met, a registration certificate would be issued. This is why if you are seeking any form of alternative or complementary medicine, it is important to ask for a practicing certificate before treatment.

Quotes: TCM focuses on qi, the body’s vital energy, that moves through channels called meridians with connections to organs and bodily functions.

Services related to TCM are not very widely provided by the public sector but there are definitely more in the private sector. According to the Traditional and Complementary Medicine (T&CM) Division, only certain government hospitals provide T&CM services. Among the T&CM services that are aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine that can be found at government hospitals are acupuncture and herbal therapy as an adjunct treatment for cancer. Indications according to T&CM Division for acupuncture are for chronic pain, post stroke and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Additionally, herbal therapy as an adjunct treatment for cancer is for cancer patients experiencing symptoms and complications of cancer and also side effects of cancer treatment.

Private Providers

Aforementioned were indications of Traditional Chinese Medicine at government hospitals but other forms of services such as gua sha, tui na, tie da and cupping are available at other private providers. 

Gua sha is a practice where the practitioner would scrape a person’s skin with a tool in order to ‘release wind’ from the body. Touted to treat anything from fever to arthritis, its efficacy has yet been scientifically proven and may have negative side effects such as dermatitis and pain.

Tui na is usually performed in tandem with acupuncture, cupping, qi gong and tai chi. This practice stimulates acupressure points of the body and a person’s body is kneaded, pressed, rolled and rubbed in order to get the energy moving between the meridians and muscles. A 2018 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that tui na could help reduce chronic neck pain. However, as with other TCM practices, further research is needed in order to ascertain its safety. It is not recommended for people who have fractures or are prone to them, and chronic back issues.

Ba guan or cupping is when cups are applied to the skin and the partial vacuum created in the cup draws skin and tissue into it. Methods of cupping include fire cupping where fire is used to create negative pressure in the cup which is then quickly placed on certain areas of the body. In TCM, cupping is done in order to get rid of ‘stagnant blood and lymph’ to improve the flow of qi. It is commonly indicated for respiratory diseases such as the common cold, pneumonia and bronchitis. Negative effects include burns from fire cupping, worsening of eczema and psoriasis, bruising and also rupture of blood vessels.

Herbal Therapy 

Chan Si Yan, traditional and complementary medicine pharmacist at the National Cancer Institute carried out a local observational study on patients who had completed radiotherapy

for head and neck cancers within six months of the study. 80 percent of the patients had xerostomia (dry mouth) and Chinese herbal treatments were administered to two thirds of the patients and it was found that it significantly improved saliva flow, improved speech, eating and head and neck pain during the sixth month of the study. This shows that TCM can be a good alternative for the treatment of the side effects of cancer. There is of course the caveat that these herbs are regulated and their effects extensively studied.

There have been cases of TCM health products seized by the authorities as these products are unregistered and thus unregulated. Being so, the herbs could be contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic, mould, and adulterants such as steroids, antihistamines or hormones. Taking unregistered TCM products could cause liver injury or even death. It is important that before you buy any type of TCM products, whether from Chinese medical halls or pharmacies, check for the hologram sticker on the product. It must have a registration number starting with MAL then followed by eight numbers.

To be safe, if you are seeking alternative treatment, do seek it at government hospitals which are regulated and monitored by the Ministry of Health. If you’d like to seek Traditional Chinese Medicine services at private providers, always insist on seeing their practicing certification issued by the Ministry of Health before proceeding to receive treatment.

Sidebox: Presently, healthcare providers such as Sunway Medical Centre and GHHS Healthcare have their own TCM arm in order to provide a range of health services. For more information, check out their websites here: 

Sunway TCM Centre: www.sunwaytcm.com GHHS Healthcare Chinese Medical Centre:


Reference: Healthline; Ministry of Health Malaysia; MIMS Oncology; Traditional and Complementary Medicine Division (tcm.moh.gov.my).