Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a form of Chinese traditional remedy with a rich history of more than 3,500 years, with its theories spanning across Chinese history, philosophy and medicine. Growing up in Singapore, it’s not uncommon to find a Traditional Chinese Medicine medical hall in any heartland neighbourhood.
Before becoming a TCM practitioner, my knowledge of Chinese herbs—like many Singaporeans—were limited to herbal tea, which I took whenever I was feeling under the weather. Because of that, I’ve always found the scent of TCM halls and herbal teas nostalgic.
Later, I learnt that specific herbal concoctions tailored for each individual can be extremely effective and fast-acting. In this article, I will outline what are the different TCM treatments for your well-being and how you can feel better faster when you see a TCM Physician.
TCM can take you from ‘sub-health’ to best-of-health
Our hectic lifestyle and urban environment are factors contributing to an increasingly common state of health that I call ‘sub-health’.
In this state, you are not diagnosed with an illness per se, but you are also not at optimal health. You might be experiencing chronic fatigue, insomnia, poor appetite and memory, and increased irritability. These are tell-tale signs of ‘sub-health’ and weakened immunity, increasing your risk of developing more serious chronic conditions.
However, at this stage, most doctors are often unable to pinpoint the exact problem with your body. TCM helps to pick up all these signals your body gives you and focuses on restoring the balance in the body, effectively preventing the body from falling ill. This is why a TCM physician would ask you questions about your food you eat, your bowel movements, etc during a consultation because we need this information to form a holistic diagnosis.
I want you to pause for a moment and think about how you have been feeling physically and mentally lately. Do you have… sleepless nights that seem to go on endlessly? Frequent headaches? Before you dismiss it as just stress and anxiety, you should know having these problems can affect other parts of your health and life, as we now know that our mind and body are invariably connected.
Like a tuning fork, TCM can help bring the body back to a harmonized state and condition it back to good health.
Managing chronic problems with TCM
According to TCM, the human body is viewed as a holistic unit, where the body’s physiological functions are maintained by the internal and external environment. It is believed that diseases are caused by imbalances in the body.
In the past, many of us associate TCM with acute pain management. Today, more of us are also turning to TCM to manage chronic ailments such as:
- Cancer support
- Cardiovascular diseases (including stroke)
- Metabolic syndromes (high cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes)
- Fertility issues
- Pain management
- Neurological conditions (Alzheimer disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, etc)
TCM approaches such as herbal prescriptions, acupuncture, cupping, tuina (Chinese massage), pediatric tuina, guasha (scraping) and lifestyle management are some commonly used TCM treatments in Singapore to correct these imbalances. They can be used solely, or in tandem, to treat a wide range of acute and chronic issues.
What to expect during a TCM consultation
TCM aims to identify the imbalances of the body. The physician will ask about your specific complaint, questions related to your medical history and lifestyle habits (such as dietary preferences, sleep patterns, bowel movements, etc).
The physician also considers nonverbal elements such as your appearance and behaviour, and will examine your tongue, skin, and pulse during the consultation.
You will get treatment recommendations most suitable for your condition followed with a personalised treatment plan to resolve the disharmony in your body.
3. Follow-up plan
A good TCM Physician would also usually recommend DIY home stretches or lifestyle habits to improve and sustain at home. This would ideally be a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goal you align with your physician to ensure your continued wellness.
The different TCM treatments and how they work
1. Herbal Prescription
Consisting of Chinese herbs or powdered formula of herbs customised to the needs of each individual, this treatment aims to harmonise the imbalances of the body. Herbal prescriptions are highly versatile and customisable; it is used to treat acute conditions, support chronic conditions and are also used for maintaining general wellness.
Consumption of prescription herbs are generally safe as it is prescribed according to your body constitution. This is why we encourage the public to refrain from self-medicating as inappropriate use of herbs may result in allergic reactions. Please do seek consultation from a professional licensed TCM Physician.
Acupuncture involves the strategic insertion of fine needles on specific acupoints to regulate the circulation of Qi (or energy) in the body. It is relatively painless, but patients may experience slight discomfort or sensations such as soreness/numbness around the area of the acupoint.
Sometimes heat or electric pulses are incorporated during the session to enhance the needling effect. Each acupuncture session generally lasts for 15-30 minutes.
Although there is a general perception that acupuncture is used for pain management, it is also excellent in managing other ailments such as allergic rhinitis, gastrointestinal issues and neurological conditions.
Tuina, also known as Chinese Massage, means to “push and pinch”. It involves applying pressure to meridians and acupoints through kneading, pressing, and rubbing actions on the body. This removes blockages along the meridians of the body, balancing the Qi and encouraging blood circulation in the body. It is commonly used for pain management, general muscle fatigue and sports injury, to relieve muscle tension and to promote cell repair.
4. Pediatric Tuina
Pediatric tuina is commonly referred to as pediatric massage. While it can seem similar to baby massage, it is not the same.
Both serve the same purpose of treating specific health conditions, except that Pediatric tuina focuses on balancing the five organs of the body (heart, lung, spleen, liver & kidney) and that the tuina is focused on the baby’s palms as most of the acupoints are found there.
Pediatric tuina is a safe and efficient method used in the treatment and prevention of ailments in young children (suitable for those below 12 years old), including constipation, diarrhoea, poor appetite, insomnia and poor immunity. It involves gentle massage techniques on acupoints unique to children. It is a non-invasive, relaxing and therapeutic remedy, as compared to other treatment methods.
Cupping gained popularity in the recent years from various endorsements by celebrities and sports personas who raved about its effectiveness in pain management and general wellness.
There are 2 cupping techniques:
I) Dry-cupping technique
This uses glass, bamboo or plastic cups to create suction on the skin.
II) Wet-cupping technique
In addition to using glass, bamboo or plastic cups to create suctions on the skin, a small incision will be made on the skin. Hence, suction from the cups will draw out a small amount of blood from the body.
Cupping improves circulation in the area by dispersing stagnation and congestion, regulating the body’s Qi and blood. Bruising with distinctive circular marks is commonly seen after the session, but the bruises will generally dissipate in a few days.
Fun-fact: As cupping is gaining popularity globally, people have gotten creative with the type of cups used! Love cups are available for a more aesthetically pleasing and quirky heart-shaped mark instead of circular marks.
Guasha or Scrapping involves using a tool to scrape the skin in long strokes, to improve circulation in the area. It is traditionally used to treat muscle pain and tension. Today, it is also used in beauty treatments on the facial muscles to promote skin elasticity.
Commonly asked questions about TCM in Singapore
Is TCM recognised in Singapore?
Yes, TCM is recognised in Singapore and registered practitioners are governed by the Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Board (part of Singapore’s Ministry Of Health).
Are local TCM physicians qualified to practice?
To register and practise as a TCM physician in Singapore, one has to first possess either qualifications from approved local TCM institutions, or a bachelor degree in TCM from recognised TCM institutions in the People’s Republic of China.
Applicants would have to pass the Singapore TCM Physicians Registration Examination before they can register as a physician locally. The physicians are required to display their registration certificates at their principal place of practice as a physician. To check their credentials, members of the public can do so by enquiring on the Traditional Chinese Practitioners Board (https://www.healthprofessionals.gov.sg/tcmpb/en).
After successfully becoming a registered practitioner, physicians have to continue taking courses to further deepen their knowledge and skills in TCM in order to maintain their practising certificate.
Can I get an MC from a TCM physician?
Your TCM physician will be able to issue you a medical certificate (MC) for your visit, depending on your condition. Some companies recognise MCs from registered TCM practitioners, it is best to check with your employer prior to your visit.
Is TCM scientifically proven?
Although there is no physiological evidence on the theories of TCM, there are increasing numbers of evidence-based research on TCM therapies. TCM treatments are relatively safe and effective for many conditions.
Medications dispensed by qualified physicians are regulated by the Health Science Authority (HSA) and are safe for consumption. Your physician will advise you if there are any contraindications to the treatments.
How to choose which TCM physician to consult?
While there is currently no specialisation in TCM in Singapore, some practitioners are more experienced in treating specific conditions either from their years of practice or from further studies in the field.
A good start would be to seek recommendations from people around you who had sought treatment from TCM physicians. Personally, I feel that effective communication with the physician regarding your condition is important in terms of helping you understand your body’s condition.
While most of the physicians are trained in Mandarin, there are many registered physicians in Singapore who are bilingual in both Mandarin and English, so fret not if you are worried about the language barrier.