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What is TCM diagnostics?

A Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor assesses a person's syndromes and disease, and state of health, by collecting and analyzing clinical information on the basis of diagnostic methods. TCM diagnostics is a study of the theories, methods and techniques of diagnosis used in TCM. Its rich substantial content is the foundation of all branches of TCM.

A TCM doctor checking the patient's pulse.
The fundamentals of TCM diagnosis

A TCM doctor makes a diagnosis based on his sensory perceptions to gather clinical information and then analyzes and interprets this data without resorting to any apparatus. The doctor can diagnose internal pathological (disease) changes by observation and analysis of external signs. The Chinese believe the human body is an organic whole, and all parts are connected with each other by channels and collaterals (otherwise known as meridians). The internal is related with the external, and the exterior with the interior. Pathological changes inside the human body are reflected externally as abnormalities of the complexion, spirit, appearance of the tongue, and pulse. TCM physicians refer to this as "determining the internal disturbance by observing external signs."

Over the centuries, TCM physicians determined that if pathological changes occur in the organs or any part of the body, a tender point would appear in the corresponding acupuncture pressure point. If the tender point can be discovered by pressing, it can be inferred which internal organ or part of the body has undergone pathological changes.

To understand this holistic approach, one should first review the fundamental basis of TCM diagnosis:

(i) Observing diseases by taking the human body as a whole
When viewing the human body as an organic whole to diagnose illness or imbalances, a TCM doctor bears two points in mind.
  Firstly, attention is paid to the interrelation and interaction between local pathological changes and maladjustments of the body. This is because local pathological changes affecting the whole body are likely to be reflected in another part. While external diseases may penetrate the interior, diseases of the organs may have external manifestations.

Secondly, the doctor observes the patient in the context of his or her surroundings. When changes occur in the weather or environment, and the human body fails to adapt to these changes, pathological changes are likely to occur.
(ii) Comprehensive analysis of data gained by diagnostic methods
  A TCM doctor adopts a variety of methods to obtain clinical information such as questioning, inspection, auscultation (discovering the condition of lungs and heart by listening and olfaction (examining by smelling), palpation (examining by touching) and pulse taking to arrive at a diagnosis. Sometimes, false manifestations of a disease occur which emphasizes the importance of integrating all diagnostic methods. See article on "What to Expect from a TCM Doctor's Examination."
(iii) Combining diagnosis of diseases with differentiation of syndromes
  In the viewpoint of modern Western medicine, doctors identify a disease based on the signs and symptoms and clinical evaluation of a patient. However, a TCM physician identifies a syndrome, which is a complex pattern of signs and symptoms that manifest at a given stage of the disease. Syndrome identification is the premise and foundation of TCM treatment. Often a TCM practitioner will diagnose both a disease and the syndrome. The name of a disease suggests its entire course of pathological changes whereas the name of a syndrome reflects the pathology of a disease at a certain stage. That's why TCM doctors may use both their understanding of the course of a particular disease, followed by the differentiation and diagnosis of syndromes, when prescribing treatment.