In my kung-fu teacher’s clinic there was always a pot of herbs ready to be heated at a moment’s notice. Often as we treated one patient, another would be sitting with his hand or foot in an herbal soak, waiting to have bones set or ligaments re-adjusted. Herbal soaks have been used for centuries by martial arts practitioners and bonesetters. They are a critical part of the treatment of sports and martial arts injuries. Soaks direct a penetrating heat into the injured tissues. This makes them unsuitable for the acute phase of an injury (generally the first 24-36 hours), when there may be severe swelling and inflammation. Yet they are invaluable later, when there is residual restriction, pain, swelling and limited range of motion.
Herbal soaks are most useful in the treatment of injuries to the hand, foot, wrist and ankle, simply because it is easier to immerse these areas in a pot of warm liquid. Soaks can be used on larger areas such as elbows and knees or the back and neck by soaking hot towels in the herbal mixture and applying them to the injured area.
The typical ankle sprain is a good example of the usefulness of herbal soaks. Immediately after the sprain there is swelling, redness, pain and a local sensation of heat. The redness and heat indicate the presence of inflammation. This makes the application of heat (as in herbal soaks) problematic, because heat will aggravate the already hot and swollen area, causing more pain, and heat will draw additional circulation to the local area increasing the swelling and stagnation of blood and fluids in the tissues. A poultice like Herbal Ice: (San Huang San Gao), which moves stasis but is also somewhat cooling is very useful at this acute (Stage 1) stage of injury.
In a minor sprain, this acute stage will last one or two days. In a more severe sprain it may take a week for the initial inflammation and swelling to subside. At this point the area is generally still somewhat painful and stiff (with restricted range of motion). There is often residual swelling, indicating stasis of fluids and blood.
Soaks are ideal for helping to resolve this second phase of injury. Soaks warm the area and disperse accumulated blood and fluids that are congealed and stuck in the tissues. Soaks also relax tight tissues that are in spasm, allowing the joint to regain its full range of motion.
This makes herbal soaks extremely effective not only for ankle sprains, but also for post-acute meniscus tears, or an elbow that has been hyper-extended and will not straighten completely. Soaks are a key component in the treatment of injuries to the fingers and toes. A jammed finger or toe may seem like a minor injury, but it can plague you for years and is susceptible to re-injury. I prescribe soaks frequently to practitioners of the Filipino martial arts, because stick strikes to the joints of the fingers are a common injury. However soaks are equally useful for rock climbers, carpenters, or athletes who may jam a finger catching a ball – basketball, football, etc. In injuries to the fingers and toes, the ligaments on the side of the joint are often kinked or slightly torn. Often there is swelling inside the joint capsule itself. This swelling can be difficult to disperse because these joints are small and tightly wrapped by surrounding tendons and ligaments. Soaks penetrate deeply reaching these blocked areas.
One of my favorite soaks is the Extra Strength Tendon Relaxing Soak (Song Jin Huo Xue Jin Ji). It is particularly useful for muscle pulls and sprains, although I have prescribed it for boxers with depressed knuckles and as well as patients with bunions that have become calcified and arthritic. This soak relaxes muscles that are in spasm as well as tendons and ligaments that become hard and inelastic after they have been swollen and overstretched.
Another amazing soak that can be used in many situations, from arthritic joint pain, to blood stasis, to spasmed tendons, is the Master Bonesetters Trauma Soak (Zheng Gu Die Da Jin Ji). This is an all-purpose saok that can be used in 2nd and 3rd stage injuries. It has been used for generations by bonesetters in Taiwan.
Soaks For Chronic Conditions
Two other herbal soaks are very useful for chronic conditions. The Warming Soak (Wen Jing Huo Luo Jin Ji) is very useful in older injuries where there is reduced circulation due to cold and dampness obstructing circulation. Often the injured area is more sensitive to cold or feels cold to the touch relative to surrounding areas or the equivalent area on the other side of the body. Wen Jing Huo Luo (溫經活絡) literally means”warm the channels and enliven the collaterals”, a very good description of what this soak does
Preparing the Soak
A soak will last about 6-7 days. To prepare a soak, simply put the herbs in a pot with enough water to cover the injured part. If you are going to soak towels or cloth in the mixture, in order to make a compress, use at least two to three gallons of water. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower the flame and simmer for 30-40 minutes. After 30-40 minutes turn off the flame and add a quart of white vinegar and a quart of rice wine or vodka. At this point it will be too hot put your hand or foot in the pot. While the mixture is cooling you can bathe the injured area in the steam until it cools sufficiently. When you finally immerse the injured area it should be warm and comfortable. If the injured area is larger – shoulder, back, knee, hip – you will need to use towels or cloth as a compress. In this case, there is no need to let the mixture cool. Simply soak the towels or cloth in the mixture, wring them out and apply to the area, changing towels or cloths each time they cool down.
Soak the injured area for 10-15 minutes once a day. The herbal mixture is then simply covered and stored. It should be reused every day for 6-7 days. There is no need to re-cook the herbs each time you use the soak, just warm the liquid up. After 7 days the herbal mixture can be discarded.
After soaking, or applying compresses, dry the area and keep it warm and away from cold or drafts. Six to seven days (1 soak) consitutes one round of treatment. In cases of chronic injury or severe stiffness, a second round of treatment may be necessary.
Herbal soaks should not be used for fractures because they have a dispersing, spreading effect as opposed to a consolidating, knitting action. They should also not be used if there are open wounds in the injured area.