Holistic Treatment

How To Use Anti-Inflammatory Herbs As a Topical Pain Remedy, According to a Doctor of Chinese Medicine

Getty Images/Sorrasak Jar Tinyo
Herbs and spices figure big in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) thanks to their natural healing properties, which make them a balm for everything from indigestion and menstrual cramps to overworked muscles. While ingesting them via herbal supplements or teas is certainly one solid way to reap their benefits, learning how to make an herbal poultice, a topical paste made of dried herbs or essential oils, can lend itself to a whole separate slate of potential upsides.

Just like you might slather on a foot cream with active ingredients to relieve sore arches, applying a poultice loaded with anti-inflammatory herbs and roots essentially brings the ingredients’ healing powers right to the spot where they're needed. To create a poultice, you'd combine a few pulverized or powdered herbs (more on this below) with a carrier oil or binding agent, like flour or honey, pat the mixture onto your skin, and secure it in place with a piece of gauze or a cotton cloth.

“When something is stuck, it slows the energetic flow within the body, potentially causing inflammation and pain. Adding a warm application of herbs can help restore that circulation.” —Giselle Wasfie, DACM

Poultices work by gently reinvigorating the flow of what's called qi in TCM, or energy that moves along channels in the body from the organs to the extremities. “When something is stuck or blocked, it slows the normal energetic flow within the body, potentially causing inflammation and pain. But adding a warm application of herbs can help restore that circulation,” says acupuncturist and herbalist Giselle Wasfie, LAc, DACM, founder of Remix Lifestyle, a Chicago-based acupuncture studio and product line. And amid winter—a time that brings more tension and stillness to the body overall, according to TCM—a warming herbal poultice can feel just as nourishing to the soul as it does to the body.

Who might use poultices (and limitations to know about)

Typically, poultices work best for issues stemming from inflammation, says Dr. Wasfie. In particular, you’re likely to feel the strongest healing effect for any irritation that’s on or near the surface of the skin (where it’s most accessible by the poultice), like a sunburn or a bruise. That said, if you add heat to a poultice by covering it with a heating pad or using warm water to make the paste, you’ll naturally activate the herbs to absorb even further into the skin, says Dr. Wasfie, making this a more effective tack for helping to alleviate deeper inflammatory issues, like a chest cough, joint pain, or ankle sprain, with a few consecutive daily applications.

That said, for conditions like these, Dr. Wasfie suggests seeking the care of a licensed TCM practitioner rather than self-treating (particularly if you haven't used an herbal poultice before). While research has shown the potential for topical application of medicinal plants to help heal inflammatory conditions—and separate studies on individual substances like turmeric, ginger, and castor oil have demonstrated their unique anti-inflammatory effects—it's always possible that a particular injury or illness requires a more intensive type of treatment.

And because herbal poultices are topical remedies, Dr. Wasfie also suggests avoiding placing one near any open wound or eczema to steer clear of a negative reaction. While poultices are not known to interact with any medications, she also recommends against using one if you're on heart medication or a blood thinner, and, in general, disclosing to your TCM practitioner any medicines you're taking, as well as any underlying conditions. (In that realm, Dr. Wasfie also doesn't suggest the use of a poultice for pregnant people.)

How to make an herbal poultice to help naturally resolve 4 different conditions

Before applying a poultice, Dr. Wasfie says to do a patch test to rule out any skin sensitivities: Just place a small amount of the herbs or oils you’re going to use on a non-irritated part of your skin, and leave it there for a few minutes. If you notice any redness or other reaction, stop, remove the substance, and wash the area with water and mild soap. If not, you can feel comfortable going forth with a full poultice.

Below, Dr. Wasfie shares how to make an herbal poultice uniquely suited to four common inflammation-related issues. Once you find one that works for you on a first application, you can use it daily to weekly, however you see fit.

1. For a sore chest or cough: mustard seed poultice

Start by pulverizing mustard seed using a mortar and pestle (or just use a mustard-seed powder), and mix with just enough flour and warm water to create a paste. In this case, Dr. Wasfie suggests brushing the paste onto the cheesecloth or gauze you’ll be using, and first applying a layer of non-petroleum jelly to the chest or back before laying on the poultice. Because mustard seed is extra-potent, this helps protect the skin while you leave the poultice in place for 10 to 15 minutes.

2. For a bruise or skin swelling: frankincense and myrrh poultice

First, give either the bruise or swollen area about 24 hours from the time when the injury occurred (during which time you could apply ice to reduce puffiness) before making a poultice. After that point, mix organic essential oils of frankincense and myrrh with either organic sesame or organic olive oil, and a bit of flour or honey to thicken the mixture. Brush it onto the area, cover it with a piece of plastic wrap, and then place a heating pad over the poultice for about 20 minutes.

3. For menstrual cramps: castor oil poultice

Start by mixing organic castor oil with moxa essential oil. (This comes from the same herb, the mugwort herb, that’s used in TCM moxa treatments.) As with the above, Dr. Wasfie says you can turn the mixture into more of a paste by adding some flour or honey, if you feel so inclined. Then, apply it to a cotton cloth, and place the cloth on the lower abdomen, just below your belly button. Layer on a heating pad, and relax for about 25 minutes.

4. For arthritis-related aches, carpal tunnel, and knee or ankle pain: turmeric or ginger poultice

Both turmeric and ginger are antioxidant powerhouses that can effectively penetrate the skin when they’re applied in a poultice, and help resolve the deeper layers of inflammation typical of these muscle aches. You can dissolve either turmeric powder or ginger powder in warm water, apply the paste to cheesecloth, and cover the sore area with the poultice. (Just note that if you choose to go the turmeric route, you could temporarily stain your skin a tad yellow.) Lay a heating pad on top of the poultice, and sit tight for about 20 minutes.

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