Traditional Korean medicine

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
A Korean acupuncturist inserting a needle into the leg of a male patient. Wellcome Collection

Traditional Korean medicine (Hangul: 한의학, Hanja: 韓醫學) refers to the traditional medicine practices that developed in Korea.[1] Traditional Korean medicine is popular in Korea and among Korean communities elsewhere. Traditional Korean medicine emphasizes perceived interactions within the body rather than functional mechanisms.


Korean medicine traditions originated in ancient and prehistoric times and can be traced back as far as 3000 B.C. when stone and bone needles were found in North Hamgyong Province, now in present-day North Korea.[2][3] In Gojoseon, where the founding myth of Korea is recorded, there is a story of a tiger and a bear who wanted to reincarnate in human form and who ate wormwood and garlic. In Jewang Ungi (제왕운기), which was written around the time of Samguk Yusa, wormwood and garlic are described as 'edible medicine', showing that, even in times when incantatory medicine was the mainstream, medicinal herbs were given as curatives in Korea. Moreover, wormwood and garlic are not found in ancient Chinese herbology, showing that traditional Korean medicine developed unique practices and inherited them from other cultures.

The Huang Di Nei Jing states that the acupuncture needle originated in a land to the East by the "Go people." During the time this text was written, the northern most Korean kingdom was under the Go Dynasty and thus would have been called "Go peoples."[4]

In the period of the Three Kingdoms, traditional Korean medicine was influenced by other traditional medicines such as ancient Chinese medicine. In the Goryeo dynasty with the influence of others like Chinese medicine, more intense investigation of domestic herbs took place: The result was the publication of numerous books on domestic herbs. Medical theories at this time were based on the medicine of Song and Yuan dynasties, but prescriptions were based on the medicine of the Unified Silla period such as the medical text First Aid Prescriptions Using Native Ingredients or Hyangyak Gugeupbang (향약구급방), which was published in 1245.

Medicine flourished in the period of the Joseon. In 1433, the Hyangyak Jipseongbang (향약집성방) was completed and included 703 Korean native medicines, providing an impetus to break away from dependence on Chinese medicine.[5] The medical encyclopaedia named Classified Collection of Medical Prescriptions (醫方類聚, 의방유취), written by Kim Ye-mong (金禮蒙, 김예몽) and other Korean official doctors from 1443 to 1445, was regarded as one of the greatest medical texts of the 15th century.[5] It included more than 50,000 prescriptions and incorporated 153 different Korean and Chinese texts,[5] including the Concise Prescriptions of Royal Doctors (御醫撮要方, 어의촬요방) which was written by Choi Chong-jun (崔宗峻, 최종준) in 1226. Classified Collection of Medical Prescriptions has very important research value, because it keeps the contents of many ancient Chinese medical books that had been lost for a long time.[6]

After this, many books on medical specialties were published. There are three physicians from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) who are generally credited with the development of traditional Korean medicine — Heo Jun, Saam, and Lee Je-ma. After the Japanese invasion in 1592, Dongeui Bogam (동의보감) was written by Heo Jun, the first of the major physicians. This work further integrated the Korean and Chinese medicine of its time and was influential to Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese medicine.

The next major influence to traditional Korean medicine is related to Sasang typology (사상의학). Lee Je-ma and his book, The Principal of Life Preservation in Oriental Medicine (東醫壽世保元, 동의수세보원) systematically theorized with the influence of Confucianism and clinical experiences in Korea. Lee Je-ma realized that even if patients suffer the same illness, patients need to use different herbal applications to treat the same illness due to the pathophysiologies of individuals. Sasang typology (사상의학) focuses on the individual patients based on different reactions to disease and hearb. Treat illness by the treatment of the root cause through proper diagnosis. Key to this diagnosis is to first determine the internal organs or pathophysiology of each patient.[7]

The next recognized individual is Saam, the priest-physician who is believed to have lived during the 16th century. Although there is much unknown about Saam, including his real name and date of birth, it is recorded that he studied under the famous monk Samyang. He developed a system of acupuncture that employs the five element theory.

In the late Joseon dynasty, positivism was widespread. Clinical evidence was used more commonly as the basis for studying disease and developing cures. Scholars who had turned away from politics devoted themselves to treating diseases and, in consequence, new schools of tradition medicine were established. Simple books on medicine for the common people were published.

Lee Je-ma classified human beings into four main types, based on the emotion that dominated their personality and developed treatments for each type:

  • Tae-Yang (태양, ) or "greater yang"
  • So-Yang (소양, ) or "lesser yang"
  • Tae-Eum (태음, ) or "greater yin"
  • So-Eum (소음, ) or "lesser yin"

Current applications[edit]


With the increase in the number of Korean immigrants coming to the United States in recent years it has become important for modern medicine to understand these traditional healing techniques and how they are used. Studies have shown that as many as half of Korean immigrants living in the United States practice some form of traditional healing at least part of the time, often concurrently with Western techniques. It has been speculated that the continued use of traditional techniques has much to do with the lack of familiarity with Western customs among new immigrants, but evidence has shown that the use of traditional techniques is often continued among second and third generation Korean immigrants. It has been suggested that this is due to a cultural difference in medicinal approaches that revolves around treating an entire individual, rather than one aspect of them or just their disease. Many Korean immigrants have spoken in similar terms and have suggested that it is not just American doctors but the manner in which they treat their patients which is "distant" and "disconnected" from the spiritual basis of the human body.

Statistical analysis of experiments involving more traditional remedies including herbal supplements and acupuncture have found that a patient's mental state is more relaxed and their emotional well being often improves after being treated with more traditional remedies rather than with Western medicines, in which case some decrease in mental and emotional stability has been seen. Medical facilities that specialize in geriatric care have reported success with traditional Korean medicine in their Korean patients and among Caucasian Americans. It has become clear to many in the medical profession in the United States that to promote the well being of their Korean patients as well as their elderly patients "new" techniques involving traditional Korean methods may be preferred by their patients and necessary for continued health.[8]

Methods of treatment in general[edit]

Herbal medicine[edit]

Doctor's office in South Korean folk village.

Herbalism is the study and practice of using plant material for the purpose of food, medicine, or health. They may be flowers, plants, shrubs, trees, moss, lichen, fern, algae, seaweed or fungus. The plant may be used in its entirety or with only specific parts. In each culture or medical system there are different types of herbal practitioners: professional and lay herbalists, plant gatherers, and medicine makers.

Herbal medicines may be presented in many forms including fresh, dried, whole, or chopped. Herbs may be prepared as infusions when an herb is soaked in a liquid or decocted — simmered in water over low heat for a certain period. Some examples of infusion are chamomile or peppermint, using flowers, leaves and powdered herbs. Decocting examples may be rose hips, cinnamon bark, and licorice root consisting of fruits, seeds, barks, and roots. Fresh and dried herbs can be tinctured where herbs are kept in alcohol or contained in a vinegar extract. They can be preserved as syrups such as glycerites in vegetable glycerin or put in honey known as miels. Both have a sweet taste and the lack of alcohol being a more suitable choice for children.

Powdered and freeze dried herbs can be found in bulk, tablets, troches similar to a lozenge, pastes, and capsules. Fluid and strong extracts being a stronger concentrate tend to work more rapidly finding a quicker result.

Non-oral herbal uses consist of creams, baths, oils, ointments, gels, distilled waters, washes, poultices, compresses, snuffs, steams, inhaled smoke and aromatics volatile oils.

Many herbalists consider using the patient's direct involvement in their own healing process and may use the patients intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual attention to the process as critical. All methods of these are delivered differently depending on the herbal traditions of that area. Nature is not necessarily safe; special attention should be used when grading quality, deciding a dosage, realizing possible effects, and any interactions with herbal medications.[9]

An example of herbal medicine is the use of medicinal mushrooms as a food and as a tea. Clinical, animal, and cellular research has shown mushrooms may be able to up-regulate aspects of the immune system.[10][11][12][13] A notable mushroom used in Korean medicine is Phellinus linteus known as Song-gen.


Acupuncture needles are a medical instrument used to cure ailments by the method of withdrawing blood and stimulating certain points on humans and animals by inserting them on specific pressure points of the body. Acupuncture enhances the flow of vital energy (also known as "Qi") along pathways (called meridians). Pressure points can be stimulated through a mixture of methods ranging from the insertion and withdrawal of very small needles to the use of heat, known as moxibustion. Pressure points can also be stimulated by laser, massage, and electrical means.[14]:234


Moxibustion is a technique in which heat is applied to the body with a stick or a cone of burning mugwort. The tool is placed over the affected area without burning the skin. The cone or stick can also be placed over a pressure point to stimulate and strengthen the blood.[15]

2013 World Traditional Medicine Expo, Sancheong


Aromatherapy is a method of treating bodily ailments using essential plant oils.[16] Roots, bark, stalks, flowers, or leaves, may be applied to the body through massage with a vegetable oil. The oils can also be inhaled, used as a compress, mixed in with ointment, or inserted internally through the rectum, vagina, or mouth.[17][full citation needed]


Meditation is a self-directed practice for the purpose of relaxing and calming the mind and body. It has been known to calm the mind, reduce pain, and help lower blood pressure and anxiety. Methods include concentrating on a single word or thought for a specific time. Some focus on physical experience such as breath or a sound or mantra, but all have a common objective of stilling the mind so that one's focus can be directed inwardly.[18]:293


Graduate School of Korean Medicine[edit]

The South Korean government established a national school of traditional Korean medicine to establish its national treasure on a solid basis after closing the first modern educational facility (Dong-Je medical school) hundred years ago by Japanese invasion.

In 2008, the School of Korean Medicine was established inside Pusan National University with the 50 undergraduate students on the Yangsan medical campus. The new affiliated Korean Medical Hospital and Research Center for Clinical Studies are under construction. Compared with common private traditional medicine undergraduate schools (2+4 year), this is a special graduate school (4+4).


In 2016, a two year old lost all body hair including scalp and has only a 10% chance of regrowth after taking a traditional Korean herbal medication. This sparked a national debate in Korea about the safety of such medicines and challenged the common assumption that since they were mentioned in ancient texts, they are safe.[19] Additionally, the current Korean herbal system lacks clinical testing.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kim, Kwang Baek; Park, Hyun Jun; Song, Doo Heon (2013). "Advanced Science and Technology Letters" (PDF): 16. doi:10.14257/astl.2013.33.04.  |chapter= ignored (help)
  2. ^ "Acupuncture Stimulated Healing". 
  3. ^ Dr. DiLeva, Rose. "The Evolution of Acupuncture in Veterinary Medicine" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on July 7, 2011. Retrieved September 14, 2010. 
  4. ^ "Traditional Korean Medicine Mesmerizes the World". 
  5. ^ a b c Selin, Helaine (2013-11-11). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Westen Cultures. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 506. ISBN 9789401714167. Retrieved 9 September 2016. 
  6. ^[dead link]
  7. ^[dead link]
  8. ^ Kim, Miyong; et al. (2 April 2002). "The Use of Traditional and Western Medicine among Korean American Elderly". Journal of Community Health. 27 (2): 109–120. PMID 11936756. 
  9. ^ Micozzi, Marc S., and Lisa Meserole (2000). Marc S. Micozzi and C. Everett Koop, ed. Herbal Medicine: Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. St. Louis: Saunders El Sevier. 
  10. ^ Lin ZB, Zhang HN (November 2004). "Anti-tumor and immunoregulatory activities of Ganoderma lucidum and its possible mechanisms". Acta Pharmacologica Sinica. 25 (11): 1387–95. PMID 15525457. 
  11. ^ Kuo MC, Weng CY, Ha CL, Wu MJ (January 2006). "Ganoderma lucidum mycelia enhance innate immunity by activating NF-kappaB". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 103 (2): 217–22. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2005.08.010. PMID 16169168. 
  12. ^ Kobayashi H, Matsunaga K, Oguchi Y (1995). "Antimetastatic effects of PSK (Krestin), a protein-bound polysaccharide obtained from basidiomycetes: an overview". Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 4 (3): 275–81. PMID 7606203. 
  13. ^ Hetland G, Johnson E, Lyberg T, Bernardshaw S, Tryggestad AM, Grinde B (2008). "Effects of the medicinal mushroom Agaricus blazei Murill on immunity, infection and cancer.". Scand J Immunol. 68 (4): 363–70. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3083.2008.02156.x. PMID 18782264. 
  14. ^ Pizzorno, Joseph E. Jr. and Pamela Snider (2000). Marc S. Micozzi and C. Everett Koop, ed. Naturopathic Medicine: Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. St. Louis: Saunders El Sevier. 
  15. ^ Kim, Y.-S. (2005). "Korean Oriental Medicine in Stroke Care". Complementary Health Practice Review. 10 (2): 105. doi:10.1177/1533210105279482. 
  16. ^ Micozzi S. Marc (1988). Chambers Dictionary. 
  17. ^ Hoffman 207–212.
  18. ^ Rodgers, Denise (2000). Marc S. Micozzi and C. Everett Koop, ed. Mind-Body Modalities: Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. St. Louis: Saunders El Sevier. 
  19. ^ "Toddler's hair loss triggers debate among health care experts". 

External links[edit]