Herbs & Steam
Hot herbal compresses have a long history of use in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. The earliest written records in Thailand are from the 14th century, when Siamese soldiers returning from battle were treated with compresses to ease their mental states and relax their bodies.
Today in Thailand, compresses prepared with medicinal herbs are used therapeutically in massage shops and spas, and also at home. Ingredients in the compresses are based on an oral tradition and specialized recipes passed down through the generations.
Knowledgeable herbalists and healers prepare compresses based on the individual needs of their patients, but most also have all-purpose recipes. The herbal blend that I mix for my clients and students is based on a traditional recipe, but it doesn’t use kaffir lime leaf—which is quite expensive in the west—or turmeric, which stains skin and clothing. In addition to the traditional blend of lemongrass, eucalyptus, ginger, and camphor, freshly-picked herbs that are available in your region may be added. Examples include lemon balm, peppermint, anise leaf, rosemary, lavender, and jasmine. Naturally, you should always learn about the properties of a plant before introducing it. Make sure there are no contraindications before you introduce local fresh herbs into a standard mixture. Above all, add local herbs only in moderation, and make sure the majority of the mix remains true to Thai tradition.
Steaming and application
Compresses must be steamed before use. It’s best to use an electric steamer—one with a thermostat will give you extra control. The basket or top compartment has large holes in it and is positioned directly above the boiling water below. The herb bundles must not come in contact with the boiling water, but they must get somewhat damp with steam in order to be effective.
Before steaming, sprinkle the outside of the wrapped compress with water or rice vinegar. Steam for a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes at200 to 225 degrees. Never submerge compresses in hot water: they will become too hot to handle and lose much of their medicinal value. If a compress accidentally drops into hot water, make sure to wring out the water completely before reusing it, since it could easily scald the skin. Always test a compress against your upper arm, neck, or face to make sure it’s not too hot.
Don’t use compresses on yourself or others within 24 hours after swelling, inflammation, or bleeding, as the heat might worsen the condition. You can treat a swollen area between 24 and 36 hours after the condition first appears, but be careful to use compresses that are warm, not hot—or, to be safe, use pre-steamed cool or cold compresses. Take extra care if the person getting the compress has diabetes, paralysis, or varicose veins. Also be careful with children and older people, since their skin may be tender.
Try to apply compresses onto bare skin whenever possible. If you are working through clothing, make sure the client is wearing natural fabrics such as cotton or rayon. After an herbal session, a light stain may remain on skin and clothing, but it should come out in the wash with no problem. Turmeric, whether in root or powder form, might permanently stain clothing a dark orange color, so be careful if you mix this powerful medicinal root into your mixture.
Thai herbal compresses alleviate pain and inflammation by opening skin pores and transferring medicating heat to the muscles, joints, and energy lines. Compress therapy helps to harmonize and relax the body, loosen energy blockages, and speed the healing of scars—including those caused by childbirth. Smelling and inhaling herb-infused vapors induces deep relaxation. Many herbs have a balancing effect on the mind and help reduce stress. Primary materials such as eucalyptus and camphor act as decongestants for the lungs and sinuses. Using hot compresses on the chest, throat, and sinuses can loosen mucus and open up the nasal passages.
In addition to the customary ginger, lemongrass, eucalyptus, and camphor, some compresses incorporate antioxidants such as turmeric (a natural skin softener), tamarind (which hydrates and regenerates skin cells), kaffir lime leaves and fruit (a skin toner and blood circulation booster), and common Thai ginger, also known as plai (which eases muscle and joint aches).
Luk pra kob (or “Thai herbal balls” as they are sometimes called in English) can be purchased premade, or you can choose to make them yourself. Most commercially available premade herbal balls are imported from Thailand, and are made of dried herbs and roots. They are wrapped in cheesecloth and have a distinctive long handle made of cloth tied with cotton string or thin strips of bamboo. In Thailand however, most serious healers do not use pre-wrapped herbs, but prefer to make their own compresses from fresh herbs and roots rather than dried materials.
Select Thai herbs and their medicinal properties
PEPPERMINT LEAF is considered a hot and aromatic herb in Thai medicine and is a common treatment for stomach pain, nausea, and indigestion. The aroma is delightful when steamed in compresses, and the vapor treats nervousness, insomnia, and stress-related conditions such as exhaustion and headaches. Peppermint has a stimulating effect on skin, and inhalation of vapors can calm coughing and relieve asthma.
EUCALYPTUS is a term that encompasses several different species, all of which have medicinal use. It is an extremely effective remedy for colds, sinus and lung problems, coughs, and asthma. Symptoms are relieved by inhalation of the vapors and topical application to the chest, throat, and the area under the nose. Eucalyptus tea is good for indigestion and fever, and the leaves are used topically on infections and skin burns. When steamed, the vapors of the herb open air passages and clean the sinuses and lungs.
LEMONGRASS is a perennial herb grown in Southeast Asia for medicinal and culinary purposes. The lower part of the stalk has a pale white color and contains the most pungent flavor. This part of the plant is used in Thai soups and curries. The entire stalk may be used to make teas, decoctions, poultices, and as a treatment for colds, fevers, coughs, and indigestion. It also is known to treat nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting. Among tribal hill people in Thailand, it is used topically for sprains, bruises, and sore muscles.
CAMPHOR is distilled from the gum or resin of a type of cinnamon tree. The resulting crystals are sold in powder form, or may be compressed into tablets for easy storage. Camphor is a strong decongestant. It is inhaled to treat colds, congestion, sore throat, cough, sinusitis, and bronchitis.
GINGER is one of the most important ingredients in Thai medicine. As a topical application it has strong antiseptic properties, and it treats bacterial and skin infections, acne, and parasites. Ginger is a powerful stimulant, aiding in digestion, control of flatulence, diarrhea, vomiting, colds, sore throat, insomnia, heart disease, acid indigestion, irregular menstruation, chronic back pain, and many other maladies. Common Thai ginger (plai) is of a different variety than the ginger found in Western grocery stores, but the medicinal properties are similar.
GALANGAL (aka galanga) is a relative of the ginger plant. The flavor is considerably stronger than that of common ginger, somewhat similar to mustard, and it has a rich aroma. It was used traditionally to cure skin diseases and is now used in spa treatments as an ingredient in body wraps to soothe and nourish the skin. The pale yellow skin is striated like a snake skin and has pink-tinged tips, but the interior is cream-colored. When eaten, thin slices are usually floated in soups, and the root is ground into curry paste.
TURMERIC is an important herbal medicine and has been used for its ability to reduce gas, ease diseases of the digestive system, and treat skin disorders such as rashes, sores, and insect bites. Scientific research has confirmed that turmeric blocks certain toxins from entering the liver and kills some types of bacteria. Turmeric is also known to arrest certain types of cancer and is being used experimentally in some countries to treat cancer victims. In Thailand, turmeric is often used in cooking, herbal medicine, and herbal compresses. Turmeric oil serves as an effective moisturizer and has antiseptic properties to heal skin ailments.
KAFFIR LIME LEAF imparts an unmistakable refreshing taste that is essential in many Thai soups and curries. A digestive aid, medicinal properties in the leaves cleanse the blood and maintain healthy teeth and gums. In Thailand, kaffir lime leaves are added to shampoo since they clean the scalp and hair and are believed to reduce hair loss. The juice and oil from the peel help prevent dandruff and leave the hair soft and shiny, and kaffir lime extract is used as a natural deodorant. Kaffir lime leaves freeze well in an airtight bag or container.
SALT is sometimes added to Thai herbal compresses and is an important ingredient in herbal bath infusions. It cleans and opens skin pores, thereby facilitating the transfer of medicinal properties. It is wonderful for softening and rejuvenating the skin and works as an exfoliant for dry skin cells. Salt eases muscle aches and relieves sunburn, rashes, and skin irritations. Use rocks of sea salt or large flakes of kosher salt in your compresses and bath infusions.
Enjoy Thai herbal compresses
Seek out an experienced practitioner when you try your first Thai herbal compress session. Don’t bathe for at least several hours after your treatment so the medicinal value of the herbs can remain on the skin long enough to be absorbed into your body. If you want to use them on others, first practice for a long time to understand how to prepare, steam, and apply the compresses in a fluid and effective manner.
Steamed Thai herbal compresses relax the body, soothe sore muscles and joints, calm the mind, improve circulation, cleanse the skin, and help restore inner peace and balance. Once you’ve tried them, you will probably want to use them over and over again.
Bob Haddad, RTT, has studied traditional Thai massage since 1999, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He is the founder of Thai Healing Alliance International (THAI) and he teaches workshops internationally. His new book, Thai Massage & Thai Healing Arts: Practice, Culture and Spirituality is available at thaihealing-arts.com.