Western and Eastern medicine refers to two different systems of medicine. Western medicine prescribes specific drugs for a disease. In contrast, Eastern medicine focuses on treating the person as a whole rather than just their symptoms.

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While Western medicine prescribes specific drugs for diseases, Eastern medicine, such as Chinese herbal medicine (pictured), focuses on treating the person as a whole rather than just their symptoms. VCG/VCG via Getty Image

The practice of medicine has evolved over time, and many people refer to these two distinct approaches as Eastern and Western medicine.

Eastern medicine approaches diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease in a holistic manner. This includes multiple factors that embrace the mind, body, and spirit. The practice includes a branch of treatment such as acupuncture and tai chi.

Western medicine uses a systemic approach, utilizing symptoms and separate organ systems to determine treatments.

This article will explore the key differences between Western and Eastern medicine, whether it is possible to utilize them in tandem, and their benefits to individuals.

Western medicine forms the basis of most modern healthcare systems in the world.

It refers to how medical professionals, such as doctors and nurses, treat diseases using medical treatments, such as drugs, radiation, and surgery. Therefore, some people may refer to Western medicine as mainstream or conventional medicine.

However, Eastern medicine refers to medicine and treatments that are not part of standard medical care. It is one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world and originates from Asia.

Some people may refer to Eastern medicine as complementary, alternative, or natural. Eastern medicine encompasses both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda techniques, which are holistic systems of medicine that have existed for far longer than conventional Western medicine.

Major branches of traditional Chinese medicine include:

Western medicine has key foundations that form the basis of treatment. These include:

  • physically examining the body and the associated symptoms
  • diagnosing diseases and conditions using scientific evidence
  • using treatments that are clinically proven to be effective

In contrast, Eastern medicine treatments are also more holistic, with the goal of restoring balance through alternative treatments such as acupuncture. However, the key difference with Eastern medicine is that it aims to treat the whole person. Therefore, some may describe this practice as more personalized to a condition.

Eastern medicine practitioners diagnose diseases by examining the entire body with a focus on imbalances in the person, while Western medicine makes diagnoses according to a person’s symptoms.

Eastern medicine has a significant emphasis on prevention, and although Western medicine does have a preventive aspect involving diet and exercise, it generally focuses on using medications.

While Western and Eastern medicine may have slightly different principles, a 2019 article notes that the two approaches are similar, as they both aim to readjust the balance of energy within the body.

Additionally, conventional treatments are starting to incorporate certain elements of Eastern medicine.

For example, some Western medicine practices treat the whole person rather than a symptom of a disease. It also uses techniques, such as meditation, as part of treatment for mental health.

How do they complement each other?

Many believe that Eastern medicine can also complement Western healthcare practices.

A 2020 systematic review found that acupuncture could effectively treat nonspecific lower back pain. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine where acupuncturists insert thin needles in specific areas to stimulate them. In addition, the review also found that combining acupuncture with medical treatment was more effective than a stand-alone medical approach.

Similarly, research has explored the effectiveness of tuina in treating conditions. Tuina is a manual therapy that is similar to massage and aims to stimulate the flow of energy within the body to promote balance.

A 2020 systematic review found that combining tuina with routine medical treatment effectively improved symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The effects of the combined treatment protocol were more effective than routine medical treatment on its own.

The effectiveness of tuina in treating diseases is still an area of great interest.

Currently, there are trials taking place and protocols to determine the effectiveness of tuina in the treatment for:

Research into traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in cancer treatment has also shown that certain TCMs can provide therapeutic effects when part of complementary therapy and modern cancer treatment approach.

A 2019 review notes that certain Chinese herbal medicines also exhibit anticancer properties and have fewer side effects than radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

A person should always speak with their primary care physician first, regardless of whether they are considering Western or Eastern medicine.

For example, certain diseases, such as cancer, may require more aggressive treatment, including chemotherapy, and Eastern approaches alone may not be sufficient to treat the disease.

Additionally, certain supplements may interact with prescription drugs, leading to unwanted side effects. Therefore, a person should always consult their doctor first to ensure that any treatment under consideration is safe.

While there are benefits to Eastern medicine and combining it with Western medicine, a person should exercise caution when seeking treatment.

For example, some Eastern medicine treatments use dietary supplements or herbs that do not always have approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

However, certain manufacturers continue to test these products. Consumers and doctors can verify the safety and side effects of herbs according to U.S. Pharmacopeia and NSF International.

Similarly, some of these products do not require a prescription. With this in mind, people should speak with their doctor before using these treatments to help ensure their safety.

Additionally, many Eastern medicine practices do not undergo regulation, and there is limited evidence from clinical trials regarding their effectiveness. Therefore, more research is still necessary to determine the effectiveness of Eastern medicine as a stand-alone treatment.

Western medicine refers to a system where medical professionals utilize medical treatments to treat symptoms of diseases. Eastern medicine refers to nonconventional treatments that focus on the person rather than just the symptoms. The latter practice also covers traditional Chinese methods such as acupuncture, tai chi, qigong, and tuina.

Eastern medicine may be beneficial in treating conditions in combination with Western medicine. For example, acupuncture can help treat back pain in tandem with routine medical treatment. Similarly, tuina can be useful in treating irritable bowel syndrome in combination with Western medicine.

However, a person should always consult their doctor before considering any treatment option.