12 June 2020

Blog Post: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and its role in battling COVID-19

By Dr. Hui Zhang, Ph.D, Chinese Medicine Doctor, Researcher, Educator, AkupunkturAkademiet, Denmark, and Chengdu University of TCM, China.

What is TCM?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a generic term used to describe a number of medical practices that originated in China and have now spread throughout the world. It includes not only acupuncture and herbal medicine, but also a number of other disciplines, such as dietary therapy, mind and body exercise (e.g. tai c’hi), and meditation. (Kayne, Steven B. 2010. Traditional Medicine, a global perspective. London: Pharmaceutical Press. Page 119) 

Tai C'hi 
Acupuncture in ear

From the perspective of TCM, a disease is defined as the holistic imbalance of various structures (organs, sinews, blood vessels etc.), substances (blood and fluids), and energy particles, Qi. If above parts are balanced, it’s called health. Pathological factors include extreme climatic change (wind, cold, damp, summer heat, heat, dryness), living environment, emotional stimulation from social relationship, improper diet, work exhaustion, traumatic injuries, genetic deficit, etc. All those factors cause certain imbalance in the body. In the battle between healthy Qi (immunity) and pathogenic Qi (pathogen), a weakened immune system results in disease, while exhaustion of healthy Qi leads to death.

Philosophic modes (Yin and Yang, five elements, and eight trigrams) are employed to analyze the relationship between a factor and an imbalance (disease) and categorize symptoms. Thanks to the thousand years of observation and validation directly on patients, TCM has developed into a self-contained medical system including different treatments and ways of diagnosing, rehabilitating, and preventing. For instance, bacteria and virus, which is commonly considered as the pathogen for a disease in Western Medicine (WM), are not the main concern in TCM. Alternatively, categorizations, such as “damp-heat”, are used to define the symptoms, “damp-heat” being the symptoms of an infection/inflammation with e.g. redness, swelling, pain, and fever.

Moreover, both the pathogen and the vitality of the body are equally concerned in a TCM treatment, rather than just how to eliminate a pathogen. 

Read more about the differences and similarities between TCM and WM here.


Understanding COVID-19 through TCM

In 1642, the first monography on epidemic diseases “Treaties on Epidemic Diseases (Wen Yi Lun瘟疫论)” was published by Dr. Wu Tang, and a new subject in TCM, the Yibing 疫病 (meaning epidemic disease), was hereby formed. Like SARS, influenzas and other epidemic diseases, COVID-19 is also regarded as Yibing in TCM. In TCM, "epidemic pathogen" refers to various factors that can cause a disease, including virus, bacteria, fungi and so on.  

As known to us, some pathogens can just cause a disorder for one person, and others can be contagious. TCM explains that when a pathogen happens during extreme or unusual circumstances (mostly climate), it can be contagious. For instance, if the climate is too warm in the winter in some places. 

The Yibing is caused by an epidemic pathogen (virus for COVID-19) attacking the body through the nostrils, mouth, eyes or other mucus membranes. From a TCM perspective, the fundamental pathogenic factor of COVID-19 would be termed as “dampness accumulation in the lung”, which invades from the exterior to the interior attacking other organs as disease develops from the early stage to mild, moderate, severe, critical, and finally recovery stages.  

The coronavirus is regarded as a "damp Yi" pathogen in the body. It enters the nose and throat first, then invades the lung, affects the heart and kidney, and finally causes damage to the whole body.

Treating COVID-19 with TCM

China has a long history of using TCM methods including herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustions etc. to treat epidemic diseases.

Chinese herbal medicines

According to the national press, TCM was involved in the treatment of 91.5% of all infected patients and TCM achieved 90% of total effectiveness.

To further evaluate the effect of TCM, an amazing "real world study" was performed. Jiangxia Mobil Cabin Hospital (江夏方舱医院) run from Feb. 14 to Mar. 10 where only TCM therapies were applied. In total, 564 patients with 71% mild and 29% common types were admitted to the hospital. The remarkable achievements include zero aggravation, zero recurrence of infection, and zero infection for the doctors and nurses. 

TCM has sophisticated theory and methods in dealing with COVID-19 based on thousands of years of experiences.

When treating illness in TCM, a personalized  treatment is performed based on individuals’ signs or symptoms, which may differ from patient to patient. Basically speaking, it depends on the severity of symptoms and energy/vitality level. For instance, the treatment for high fever and low fever is different. The treatment for weak constitution and strong constitution also differs.  It’s also the main difference between TCM and WM. It’s called “treat the same disease with different method because of different constitution.”

According to The Seventh Edition of National Guideline on Diagnosis and Treatment for COVID-19, TCM is recommended to be used according to the individual's condition, following three stages:

  • Observation stage for suspected subjects: TCM methods are used to remove the external damp and prevent it's invading the respiratory system. For instance, patent herb formulae, Qigong, or acupuncture can be applied to improve the subjects with fatigue, fever, and digestion discomfort. All subjects are treated at home or in quarantine facilities. 
  • Treatment stage for patients diagnosed with COVID-19: There are 4 types i.e. mild, common, moderate, and severe types of the patients. Individualized therapy plans are made to best benefit the patients. Normally, TCM and WM are combined to ensure the best effect in hospital treatment esp. for the moderate and severe types. 
  • Recovering stage for discharged patients: Some patients have sequelae after treatment in hospitals, e.g. tiredness, reduced appetite, diarrhea, constipation, and sweating. TCM functions well to control the symptoms and can also prevent a relapse of the infection. 

The main difference between TCM treatment and western medicine is that TCM treats the condition as early as possible and treats the sequelae to help people return to symptom-free life as early as possible. Based on the achievements of a wide use of TCM, I will say, like the two legs of the body, TCM and WM can cooperate and support each other to ensure the best effect.  

More research sources can be found on my blog.