Chinese Medicine stands tall as an ancient medical practice, tracing back more than 3,000 years. With roots steeped in tradition, Chinese medicine incorporates herbal remedies, acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, and other modalities. Crucial to its efficacy, the diagnostic techniques employed in Chinese medicine and acupuncture serve as the backbone for individualized treatment plans. In this article, we will explore these unique diagnostic approaches and their practical applications.

Image depicting various TCM diagnostic models including Zang Fu diagnosis, 5 Element diagnosis, 6 pathogen diagnosis, 8 principle diagnosis and meridian diagnosis

Diagnostic Objectives

Acupuncture & Traditional Chinese medicine take great interest in natural relationships. For example, the relationships between a patient and their environment, or the relationship between one part of a patient to another, is of vital importance when assessing a patient’s condition. These diverse and complex relationships are known as Qi (Chee). It is their Balance and smooth function that is the basis for health.

Many different diagnostic models exist to analyze the flow and balance of the patient’s Qi. The most common ones include:

  • Zang Fu Organ Diagnosis
  • 5 element diagnosis
  • 6 pathogens diagnosis
  • 8 factor Diagnosis
  • Meridian diagnosis

Although each of these diagnostic models differs in view and approach, they all share the same diagnostic methods. Let’s examine them below.

Diagnostic Techniques of Chinese Medicine

Chinese medical diagnostics places great emphasis on the four examinations (Sì Zhên), comprising inspection, auscultation and olfaction, inquiry, and palpation. These techniques emphasize a holistic understanding of the body and its imbalances, paving the way for individualized treatment.

Inspection (Wàng Zhen)

Beginning with inspection, Chinese medicine practitioners examine a patient’s physical appearance, focusing first on the actual signs of disease or injury. However, the face, posture, body shape, movements, ears, and tongue are also vitally important. For instance, the expression and color of the face at rest, combined with body posture, shape, and movement, provide insights into the patient’s health, mental-emotional state and vitality. Additionally, different textures, shapes and colors of various body parts, such as the skin, tongue or ears, correlate with specific health imbalances, giving practitioners clues to identify & target not only the symptoms but also the root cause.

Auscultation and Olfaction (Wén Zhen)

Next, auscultation and olfaction involve listening to a patient’s voice and body sounds and smelling any odors emanating from the body. By evaluating a patient’s breathing patterns, cough, tone of voice, and other sounds, practitioners can further identify imbalances and ailments. In addition, distinct breath and body odors may indicate specific organ dysfunctions, guiding and refining the practitioner’s diagnosis.

Inquiry (Wèn Zhen)

During inquiry, Chinese medical practitioners question patients about their symptoms, medical history, lifestyle, and emotional well-being. By understanding a patient’s symptoms & background, practitioners accordingly gain insight into each individual’s unique health condition. There are hundreds of questions that provide useful information, but most practitioners initially ask the following ten questions about:

  1. Temperature
  2. Sweating
  3. the mind and senses
  4. Pain
  5. Bowels & Urination
  6. Thirst, Appetite & Taste
  7. Sleep
  8. The Chest and Abdomen (and Gynecology in women)
  9. the Limbs
  10. Medical history
Acupuncturist performing Chinese medical pulse diagnosis during acupuncture treatment in Dartmouth, NS

Pulse Feeling & Palpation (Qiè Zhen)

Lastly, palpation requires practitioners to touch and feel various body parts, including the pulse, abdomen, meridians and acupuncture points, to detect imbalances.

In particular, pulse diagnosis serves as a significant Chinese medical diagnostic technique. Practitioners therefore regularly evaluate pulse characteristics to discern underlying health conditions. There are in fact a wide variety of pulse traditions, including the 5 element, Herbal, and I Ching pulse diagnosis traditions. I Ching pulse diagnosis is the tradition used at Access Acupuncture in Dartmouth, NS.

Diagnostic Techniques of Acupuncture

Acupuncture, relies on inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to promote healing and balance. Acupuncturists use the Four Examinations, however acupuncture introduces a few unique refinements to diagnose and treat patients.

illustration of the meridians used in acupuncture and Chinese medicine

Meridian Diagnostics

At the heart of acupuncture diagnostics lies the meridian model. Meridians are a network of channels connecting the body’s organs, tissues, functions, interactions and relationships. These dynamic, flowing relationships are called “Qi”. Acupuncture aims to balance and smooth the flow of Qi by stimulating specific points along these channels, known as acupuncture points. In diagnosing patients, acupuncturists consider the functionality, shape, color, temperature, and symptoms of the meridians, as well as relationships between the organs and tissues. This allows them to arrive at a diagnosis and determine which meridians and acupoints to manipulate.

Acupoint Sensitivity

When diagnosing, acupuncturists also assess the sensitivity of specific acupoints. Sensitive or tender acupoints often suggest imbalances or blockages in the related meridians, organs or problem areas. Therefore, by palpating these acupoints, practitioners can identify the areas requiring treatment.

Although meridian diagnostics is one of the oldest diagnostic traditions of Chinese medicine, it is uncommon in Nova Scotia. Acupuncturists who practice meridian diagnostics are generally trained in the Balance Method, a Taiwanese system which preserved and refined the diagnostic and therapeutic techniques of classical acupuncture. Access Acupuncture in Dartmouth NS is the only clinic in Nova Scotia whose acupuncturists are certified in the Balance Method.


Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture boast a rich history of holistic, patient-centered diagnostic techniques. From the time-honored Four Examinations to the classical acupuncture diagnostics preserved in the Balance Method, these practices continue to be useful and relevant in modern health-care. By staying true to their roots, the diagnostic techniques of acupuncture and Chinese medicine can effectively guide practitioners towards designing effective individualized treatment plans, improving overall patient care.

Related: The Application of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of Specific Illnesses and Conditions

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