Chinese Medicine | Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM- A closer look at the ancient art of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine: Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a method of complementary and alternative medicine that typically uses a holistic approach, dating back thousands of years, toward individualized patient care. TCM typically seeks to improve healthy unity of the mind, body and spirit without the use of pharmaceutical drugs. TCM providers use several different methods to diagnose patients including observation, listening, interviewing, pulse reading, and touching. In the United States, the most common treatments used in TCM are acupuncture and herbal medicine. However, professionals may also apply moxibustion, massage, qi gong, cupping, tai chi and dietary therapy to treat clients.

Nature of Work

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), TCM is largely based on the yin-yang theory, eight principles theory, and five elements theory.

To start, the yin-yang theory is the belief that everything in the universe exists through a natural balance of opposing forces. Professionals of TCM may apply this theory to the human body in that illness is often the result of a disruption of harmony, or yin-yang, in the body. The eight principles are actually four pairs of opposing forces in the body: yin and yang, hot and cold, interior and exterior, and deficiency and excess. Uneven distribution of any of these elements can lead to illness through the body.

Lastly, the five elements theory is a TCM idea that the natural world has an interconnected relationship to the human pathology and physiology. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, water, and metal. In TCM, organs and tissues are typically characterized by one of the natural elements. Just as all natural elements remain in constant change to either promote or restrain each other to create harmonious conditions, the body's physical components also work in this manner to function normally. Thus, if one element becomes disturbed, the whole body may be negatively impacted.

Education Requirements for Traditional Chinese Medicine

Professionals who practice TCM typically complete a formal postsecondary education program. These programs may be found online or through campus-based institutions, colleges, universities and academies.

Certificate/Diploma in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Prospective students interested in starting their education by earning a certificate or diploma may find the most popular specialty options available including:

  • Certificate in qi gong
  • Certificate in acupuncture
  • Certificate in herbal medicine
  • Certificate in tui na massage therapy
  • Diploma of oriental medicine
  • Diploma of acupuncture

Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Practitioners (especially acupuncturists) are typically encouraged to earn a master's degree to ensure professional competency and a high level of quality care for patients.

TCM schools typically offer programs that are divided into two parts. The first section consists of theory education. Here students may learn the basic foundations of TCM, acupuncture techniques and point location, therapeutic modalities, Chinese herbology, advanced anatomy, patient counseling, botany, diagnosis, qi gong exercise, physiology, and medical terminology. These subjects are typically taught through classroom lectures, written examination, group discussions, online activities, case studies, and independent readings.

Once theory education is completed, TCM schools typically conclude a program by requiring students to participate in supervised clinical training activities or internships.

Hands-on Training for Registered Nurse

Unlike theory education, clinical training is typically taught in off-site community health centers that can provide TCM services. This may be a great opportunity for students to observe and assist a variety of medical and healthcare experts working with real life patients.

Certification and Licensure

TCM schools are typically designed to prepare students to qualify for examinations by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). After eligibility requirements have been fulfilled, the NCCAOM may administer certification examinations according to specific practice. Once examination has been passed, certification may be granted. Recertification is typically required every four years by completing sixty professional development activity (PDA) points. These PDA points may be acquired through several different channels including:

  • Additional NCCAOM certifications
  • Serving on a professional board
  • Passing NCCAOM biomedicine examination
  • Donating acupuncture and oriental medicine services
  • Clinical supervision and experience
  • Research projects, peer-reviewed posters and exhibits
  • Authoring literary publications (books, professional journals, articles)
  • Teaching and lecturing
  • Advocating legislature

Most TCM professions typically do not require formal licensing and certification to legally practice. Yet, most acupuncturists may be required to obtain a state license prior to working with patients because they typically use needles during therapy.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Salary averages may significantly vary between professionals employed in the field of TCM. Salaries and wages may differ according to occupations.

Geographic location may also impact salary expectations. Job availability is typically greater in cities with concentrated populations, but more career opportunities may not always equate to better paying jobs. Therefore, professionals tend to relocate for a position may improve their chances of achieving ideal salaries. Also, employers and patients alike typically prefer TCM professionals with advanced degrees and significant work experience in the field. As a result, those that continue to show enthusiasm for continuing education by earning a master's or doctoral degree in TCM along with additional training typically generate higher incomes.

Finally, certification status may also affect salaries. Showing occupational aptitude by getting nationally certified in one or more areas of specialty in TCM may lead to profitable careers.


  • Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth, NIH, accessed March 2019,
  • Summary Report for Acupuncturists, O*Net OnLine, accessed March 2019,
  • National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, accessed March 2019,
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