Part 1- Introduction and Categories of Herbal Medicines
**Most of the following content is provided by David Bock C.Ac. Dipl.Ac. Dipl.CH, a teacher of Wadokai Aikido (under Roy Suenaka Sensei), a Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist, NCCAOM National Board Certified in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology.**
Editor’s Note: In this series of articles the author discusses Chinese Herbal remedies useful for bruises, sprains, strains, fractures, bleeding and other trauma. They are useful for martial artists, weekend athletes, or anyone who exercises. Remedies, however, are not always available at your local drug store.
Martial Arts and herbal medicine have worked hand in hand for a long time in what the Chinese call shang ke, or trauma medicine. This is often referred to by the term die da, which means fall and strike or contusion. When herbs were mixed into a formula to treat trauma, they were generally called Die da with the form of the medicine added to the end. For example, die da wan is known as a “hit pill." If it is a wine or alcohol based formula it would be called die da jiu.
Throughout history most martial artists with herbal knowledge have made their own secret formulas to use on their students. Often, these formulas are variations of older formulas called die da yao, or “fall and strike medicine." Depending on the Romanization system used, these formulas are now known as dit da jow, tieh ta yao, dee da jow, and any number of other spellings. In this guide, I will not stick to one particular style of Romanization but rather use the spelling the manufacturer has used to identify the product.
The important thing for the martial artist is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the various formulas. I will focus on the readily available topical formulas. Chinese herbal medicine is a vast topic that when properly applied is customized to the situation at hand, with herbs selected based not only on the type of trauma but the nature of the patient. In practice, usually a patient is treated with general formulas first and more specific herbal treatments later. In other words: stop the bleeding, reduce the local pain, and worry about healing later when there is the luxury to do so. If there is a skin reaction to a formula, it may be because it is not matched well to the personal dynamics of the patient, in which case an herbalist should be consulted or other comparable formulas tried until a formula is found that does not cause a reaction.
Most of the die da formulas are interchangeable to some degree. They all treat pain and most have herbs to help heal tissue. It is the particular mix of herbs and their percentages that determines the specific characteristics of the medicine. Even well-known manufacturers publish very little information about the specific amounts of ingredients. Many just list a few “active” ingredients and list many of the important herbs as “inactive." We can make some educated guesses at the use of a formula based on what seems to be the predominant dynamics of the herbs in the mix. The common herbs in these formulas can be grouped in several categories. Note that many of these herbs are useful because they cover more than one category. However, I will only list the predominant function.
Herbal Medicine Categories
The Aromatics: These are the stronger “dispersant blood moving” herbs that quickly reduce pain. Pain in herbal medicine is technically the blockage of “blood” movement. These strong herbs break up stasis to reduce pain but do not necessarily help heal tissue. These herbs include Camphor (zhang nao), menthol and mint oils, Borneol (bing pian), Carthamus (hong hua, safflower), turpentine (pine oil, song jie), Clove (ding xiang) and Musk (she xiang). Methyl salicylate, which is a natural form of aspirin derived from tree bark, moves energy strongly and in many ways also works like an aromatic.
Blood Movers: These are herbs that also move energy to reduce pain, but are more effective in regards to long-term tissue repair. Some blood movers are also the best herbs to stop bleeding because they quickly spur the clotting response as part of the tissue repair functions. The two most well known are the resins Frankincense (boswellia, olibanum, ru xiang) and Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha,mo yao). Other important herbs include Peony (bai shao), Angelica (dang gui), Dragon bone (long gu), and Dragon’s Blood (xue jie). Herbs that also specifically stop bleeding are catechu (betal husk, da fu pi), charred cattail (pu huang), Uncaria (cutch, er cha), and the most important one, Panax Notoginseng (psuedoginseng, tien chi, san qi).
Hot Herbs: These herbs are hot or warming in nature. They also tend to have some pain-relieving or tissue repair properties. Many formulas mix warm and cold herbs together; but the temperature of the formula will be determined by which types of herbs are most predominant in the formula. Warm and hot herbs are best on old or re-injured tissue where there is no redness or swelling, and where it feels good to add heat or tight bandages to the area. Quite often, if there is a red skin reaction to a topical formula, it is one of these herbs that is the likely culprit. Finding a “cooler” formula may be the answer to skin irritation. The very hot herbs are the aconites (fu zi, wu tou, wolfsbane and many other names), and the capsicums (chili, cayenne). Other warm/hot herbs include asarum (wild ginger, xi xin), cassiae ( cinnamon, rou gui, gui zhi), clove (ding xiang), drynaria (gu sui bu), fennel (foeniculum, xiao hui xiang), and ginger (zingiberis, sheng jiang, gan jiang).
Cold Herbs: These herbs are best when there is redness, swelling, and the tissue feels warm to the touch. We often use formulas that are heavy in these herbs in place of ice for new trauma as we see much greater pain relief and quicker patient recovery. The common herbs in this category are mints /wintergreen (menthol, bo he), dandelion (pu gong ying), rhubarb (rheum, da huang), lonicera (honeysuckle, jin yin hua), polgonum cuspidatum (hu zhang), scutellaria (huang qin, skullcap), tea tree oil, aloe vera (lu hui), eucalyptus (an ye), and tumeric (zedoary, jiang huang).
Other common herbs are Licorice (gan cao), which is classically used to harmonize herbs in a formula. Some herbs like ligusticum (chuan xiong), Lebedourillae (siler, fang feng), turpentine (pine oil, song jie) and Angelica (bai zhi) protect the injured area while it heals.
Many formulas are simply variations on a theme, and can be arranged in groups based on their particular herbal strengths. Part 2 of this article series will give recommendations grouped by injury type. Remember that they all reduce pain and help heal tissue, so in a pinch, use what is available to you.
There are some general safety precautions about topical herb formulas:
- Unless the package says otherwise, it is not a good idea to apply heat or any non-breathable covering (like plastic bandages) to an herbal topical formula applied to the skin.
- Always read package cautions, and make sure a formula is safe on broken tissue before a topical formula is used on an open wound.
- Do not apply any of these formulas to the back or abdomen of a pregnant woman.