Traditional Korean medicine

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]


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 said 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, a 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 traditional 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:

Overseas use

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 the use of traditional techniques is often continued among second and third generation Korean immigrants.


Herbal medicine

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. Powdered and freeze dried herbs can be found in bulk, tablets, troches similar to a lozenge, pastes, and capsules.

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 the patient's direct involvement to be critical. These methods are delivered differently depending on the herbal traditions of each 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.[8]

An example of herbal medicine is the use of medicinal mushrooms as a food and as a tea. A notable mushroom used in traditional Korean medicine is Phellinus linteus known as Song-gen.


Acupuncture is used to withdraw blood or stimulate certain points on humans and animals by inserting them on specific pressure points of the body. Traditional acupuncture involves the belief that a "life force" (qi) circulates within the body in lines called meridians.[9] Scientific investigation has not found any histological or physiological evidence for traditional Chinese concepts such as qi, meridians, and acupuncture points,[n 1][13] and many modern practitioners no longer support the existence of life force energy (qi) flowing through meridians, which was a major part of early belief systems.[14][15][16][17] 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.[18]: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.[19]

2013 World Traditional Medicine Expo, Sancheong

A Cochrane Review found limited evidence for the use of moxibustion in correcting breech presentation of babies, and called for more experimental trials.[20] Moxibustion has also been studied for the treatment of pain,[21] cancer,[22] stroke,[23] ulcerative colitis,[24] constipation,[25] and hypertension.[26] Systematic reviews have found that these studies are of low quality and positive findings could be due to publication bias.[27]


Aromatherapy is a method of treating bodily ailments using essential plant oils.[28] 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.[29] There is some evidence that aromatherapy can help improve general well-being, but no good medical evidence that it can prevent or cure disease.[30]


Meditation is a self-directed practice for the purpose of relaxing and calming the mind and body. 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.[31]:293


Graduate School of Korean Medicine

The South Korean government established a national school of traditional Korean medicine to establish its national treasure on a solid basis after the closing of the first modern educational facility (Dong-Je medical school) hundred years ago by the 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. There was a debate in Korea about the safety of such medicines.[32] But the dermatologist who treated the toddler said the cause is not a herbal medication and any drug cannot trigger alopecia in three days.[33]

See also


  1. Singh & Ernst (2008) stated, "Scientists are still unable to find a shred of evidence to support the existence of meridians or Ch'i",[10] "The traditional principles of acupuncture are deeply flawed, as there is no evidence at all to demonstrate the existence of Ch'i or meridians"[11] and "As yin and yang, acupuncture points and meridians are not a reality, but merely the product of an ancient Chinese philosophy".[12]


  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". Archived from the original on 2015-04-09.
  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. 1 2 3 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. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-10-08. Retrieved 2011-07-13.
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-11-15. Retrieved 2010-09-22.
  8. 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.
  9. "Acupuncture". NHSChoices. Retrieved 2 May 2015.
  10. Singh & Ernst 2008, p. 72
  11. Singh & Ernst 2008, p. 107
  12. Singh & Ernst 2008, p. 387
  13. Ahn, Andrew C.; Colbert, Agatha P.; Anderson, Belinda J.; Martinsen, ØRjan G.; Hammerschlag, Richard; Cina, Steve; Wayne, Peter M.; Langevin, Helene M. (2008). "Electrical properties of acupuncture points and meridians: A systematic review" (PDF). Bioelectromagnetics. 29 (4): 245–256. doi:10.1002/bem.20403. PMID 18240287.
  14. de las Peñas, César Fernández; Arendt-Nielsen, Lars; Gerwin, Robert D (2010). Tension-type and cervicogenic headache: pathophysiology, diagnosis, and management. Jones & Bartlett Learning. pp. 251–254. ISBN 9780763752835.
  15. Mann, F (2000). Reinventing Acupuncture: A New Concept of Ancient Medicine. Elsevier. ISBN 0750648570.
  16. Williams, WF (2013). Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy. Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. Routledge. pp. 3–4. ISBN 1135955220.
  17. Ulett, GA (2002). "Acupuncture". In Shermer, M. The Skeptic: Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. ABC-CLIO. p. 283291. ISBN 1576076539.
  18. 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.
  19. Kim, Y.-S. (2005). "Korean Oriental Medicine in Stroke Care". Complementary Health Practice Review. 10 (2): 105. doi:10.1177/1533210105279482.
  20. Coyle, M. E.; Smith, C. A.; Peat, B (2012). "Cephalic version by moxibustion for breech presentation". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 5 (5): CD003928. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003928.pub3. PMID 22592693.
  21. Lee, Myeong Soo; Choi, Tae-Young; Kang, Jung Won; Lee, Beom-Joon; Ernst, Edzard (2010). "Moxibustion for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review". The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 38 (5): 829. doi:10.1142/S0192415X10008275. PMID 20821815.
  22. Lee, Myeong Soo; Choi, Tae-Young; Park, Ji-Eun; Lee, Song-Shil; Ernst, Edzard (2010). "Moxibustion for cancer care: A systematic review and meta-analysis". BMC Cancer. 10: 130. doi:10.1186/1471-2407-10-130. PMC 2873382Freely accessible. PMID 20374659.
  23. Lee, M. S.; Shin, B.-C.; Kim, J.-I.; Han, C.-h.; Ernst, E. (2010). "Moxibustion for Stroke Rehabilitation: Systematic Review". Stroke. 41 (4): 817. doi:10.1161/STROKEAHA.109.566851. PMID 20150551.
  24. Lee, Dong-Hyo; Kim, Jong-In; Lee, Myeong Soo; Choi, Tae-Young; Choi, Sun-Mi; Ernst, Edzard (2010). "Moxibustion for ulcerative colitis: A systematic review and meta-analysis". BMC Gastroenterology. 10: 36. doi:10.1186/1471-230X-10-36. PMC 2864201Freely accessible. PMID 20374658.
  25. Lee, Myeong Soo; Choi, Tae-Young; Park, Ji-Eun; Ernst, Edzard (2010). "Effects of moxibustion for constipation treatment: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials". Chinese Medicine. 5: 28. doi:10.1186/1749-8546-5-28. PMC 2922210Freely accessible. PMID 20687948.
  26. Kim, Jong-In; Choi, Jun-Yong; Lee, Hyangsook; Lee, Myeong Soo; Ernst, Edzard (2010). "Moxibustion for hypertension: A systematic review". BMC Cardiovascular Disorders. 10: 33. doi:10.1186/1471-2261-10-33. PMC 2912786Freely accessible. PMID 20602794.
  27. Lee, Myeong Soo; Kang, Jung Won; Ernst, Edzard (2010). "Does moxibustion work? An overview of systematic reviews". BMC Research Notes. 3: 284. doi:10.1186/1756-0500-3-284. PMC 2987875Freely accessible. PMID 21054851.
  28. Micozzi S. Marc (1988). Chambers Dictionary.
  29. Hoffman 207–212.
  30. Ades TB, ed. (2009). "Aromatherapy". American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd ed.). American Cancer Society. pp. 57–60. ISBN 9780944235713.
  31. 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.
  32. "Toddler's hair loss triggers debate among health care experts".
  33. "The cause is not a herbal medication.".
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