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What Is Unani Medicine?

Cupping is sometimes used in Unani medicine.
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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2014
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Unani medicine, also called Yunani medicine or Unani-Tibb, is a system of alternative medicine first developed by Islamic physician Avicenna in about 1025 CE. The basic tenets of this system revolve around the overarching principle of balance. Health is seen as the constantly active condition of one's body rebalancing the four primary elements, which are air, fire, earth, and water. These four elements take on symbolic and literal functions in this system. The methods used to achieve balance and redistribution are often intended to act not directly on the elements, but on more physical manifestations of those elements, such as literal and physical fluids.

A practitioner of Unani medicine has a number of diagnostic tools with which to identify a state of disease, including pulse evaluation, examination of bodily waste, and verbal confirmation of pain. Disease is the result of a state of imbalance, and once the imbalance has been identified, it can be corrected. Treatment usually consists of natural herbs and plants, but because of the focus on healing the entire bodily system, other techniques are sometimes included in treatments. These techniques include purging, bath therapy, cupping, sweating, and exercise.

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As a primary medical system, Unani medicine remains popular in Asia and much of the Muslim world. While this tradition is quite similar to Ayurveda, it has typically been overlooked in the United States in favor of more commonly known Ayurvedic methods. Unani medicine is commonly used to guide food and drink choices to prevent imbalances because of the system’s focus on intake and excretion. In the United States and many other places, it functions in this regard mainly as a system of complementary medicine for general health, thereby not taking the place of western medicine for serious illness or injury.

While this medical system historically draws from Indian, Greek, and Islamic sources, it is often seen as a Muslim elaboration on the Greek theory of humors. The word Unani translates as "Greek," and the humors and their corresponding elements play a large role in Unani theories. Even though Unani medicine has continued to embrace its origins in Humoralism, practitioners consider themselves followers of a scientific and modern system of medicine, much of which relies on systematic experimentation. Unani doctors can complete a Bachelor of Unani Medicine and Surgery (BUMS) degree to formalize their credentials and license them to practice in certain areas. While western medicine thinks of Humoralism as a relic of ancient medicine, the presence of Humoral theories in this system does not imply a lack of evolution on the part of Unani medicine, but rather a different evolutionary path from that of western medicine.

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