The Biggest Difference Between Western and Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine make good partners. Using both of these types of healthcare simultaneously can help you get even greater health results. Acupuncture doesn’t interfere with prescription medications, and can help you recover from surgeries faster.

However, these two styles of medicine have very different philosophies and ways of viewing the body and its environment. Learning the difference between the two will help you navigate between them better, and decide what the best use of these two systems is for you.

Western Medicine

The current, Western bio-medical model is familiar to all of us who are living in the modern industrialized world. It uses imaging technology and chemical analysis of our fluids and excretions to diagnose disease. It then treats the disease using a few different methods. One is to introduce a synthetic chemical, or constellation of chemicals, into the body, with either a pill, an injection, or intravenously. The other big treatment is surgery, removing or adding an object or two, and/or changing the structure of the body in some way.

But it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, the history of this medicine is quite short. Only 100 years ago antibiotics and most other medicines weren’t widely available. Surgeries were crude and left lots of scar tissue. And MRIs and even most bloodwork, were non-existent. It’s quite amazing to think about how far we’ve come in such a short period of time.

Chinese Medicine

On the other hand, Chinese medicine has been practiced continuously for thousands of years. It has a very different way of both diagnosing and treating the body/mind, which is based on observation of the natural world. To diagnose the patient, a practitioner of Chinese medicine will take all the person’s symptoms into account, including body pain, digestion, immunity, reproductive and urinary health, and mental health as well. Practitioners become very skilled at using their own hands and eyes to glean detailed information from your body. They feel your radial pulse, they might look at your tongue, feel your abdomen, arms, legs and back. They might look at your posture and how your body moves. All of these factors are considered, in order to see the bigger pattern of what’s happening in your body.

Treatment in Chinese medicine can consist of acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, moxibustion, massage, herbal medicine, diet changes or exercises to practice. You may receive just one of these modalities, or a few different ones, depending on your condition and your preferences.

 How Are They Similar?

These two systems of medicine both us complex, sophisticated means to understand the way the body works, and to treat things that go wrong. They came to these conclusions and understandings by studying the natural world.

They both claim to be able to treat a full spectrum of conditions that humans suffer from. However, I have found that Western medicine is great at treating acute, emergency conditions, but not as good at those long-standing chronic issues. The opposite is true for Chinese medicine. Because it works slower, it’s better for long term issues.

How Are They Different?

Ok, here’s where things take a sharp turn. Those complex, sophisticated methods I mentioned above – they are completely different from each other. As we discuss how each type of medicine views the world, keep in mind that these are broad statements, and each individual that practices medicine views things a little differently. A short article like this can’t account for all the variations between people, or even between styles of practice. Now with the disclaimer out of the way, let’s dive in! 

Because most of us grew up with what we call modern, science-based medicine, we have an unconscious bias that views the body and disease in a particular way. But as I mentioned earlier, just because it’s the way we see things now, doesn’t mean that’s the way it’s always been.

The Current Model

We see the body as a complex machine, with lots of tiny moving parts to study. When a disease process happens, we see that as an enemy to fight. A bacterial invader needs antibiotics to wipe it out, a misbehaving organ should just be removed, and pain (called “inflammation”) calls for steroids or anti-inflammatories. The body is seen as dysfunctional when a disease happens, and medicine needs to go in and function for it. The body has betrayed us, and we need to suppress the body’s natural functions in order to get it working “properly” again.

Scientists are constantly studying all of those tiny moving parts and breaking them down into even tinier parts. When they do experiments, they try their hardest to erase all bias, interference and variables.

 The Supportive Model

What if we instead looked at disease as a reaction to what we’ve put our bodies through since birth? After all, we spend most of our lives sitting (even as a kid in school) wearing shoes that restrict the movement of our feet, eating denatured, processed food, breathing in exhaust, slathering weird chemicals on our skin, and staring at screens all day. Our bodies haven’t failed; we have failed our bodies. Under the surface, our physiology has been keeping us balanced this whole time, despite all that we’ve done to it, and it just can’t hold on any longer.

So, instead of attacking the body for doing us wrong, we support it, so that it can get back to balance. When we get sick, we take diaphoretics to open the pores and release the pathogen, if we have pain, it reminds us to move more and work on our alignment, and if our hormones are out of whack, we get acupuncture to balance them. 

This is Chinese medicine. Instead of breaking down the world into parts, it looks at how things interact. It views everything as changing and transforming into something else. Day turns into night, a seed grows into food, a baby becomes an adult. Instead of playing whack-a-mole and suppressing one symptom, only to have another pop up somewhere else, Chinese medicine examines how each part of the body is interacting with the rest of it, finds patterns, and gives a treatment that balances the entire system.

I’m an acupuncturist so yes, I am a bit biased towards my own medicine. But through the years of studying, researching, synthesizing and treating patients with this medicine, I’ve seen so many people get better. These experiences have slowly transformed the way that I view the world, and I think it is for the better.


Elizabeth Williams is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of Dragonfly Acupuncture & Massage, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.