Aches and pains abound, don’t they? Whether it’s a niggling sprain, a torn muscle, or a stinging bruise, they sure ain’t fun. Well, dear reader, I might just have the perfect solution for your irksome little twinges. I call it a Traditional Chinese Medicine thingy, or the Gou Pi Gao (狗皮膏), more commonly called Gao Yao (膏药). It’s a sort of plaster or patch. If you literally translate Gou Pi Gao it means dog skin patch because, back in the olden days, a medicinal paste was smeared on an aged piece of dog skin and applied to the affected area. Nice, huh? Thankfully as time passed, the use of dog skin was phased out and has been replaced with adhesive cloth patches.
The idea behind the use of medicinal plasters came from the Tang Dynasty; they believed that medicinal plasters were more effective than ingesting the medicine for “diseases” that were positioned between the skin and the bone or tendon (bruises, broken capillaries, tiny fractures, torn muscles, etc.). Applying the plaster directly allows the medicine to be directly absorbed into the damaged soft tissue thus speeding up the healing process.
Around the 11th century, paper and cloth replaced the dog skin and instead of having medicine come in paste, the medicine itself was dried into a resin and was sandwiched between paper and cloth. To activate the patch, the resin was melted in a warm pan or in a steamer to soften it so it could be directly applied to the wound. Later on, if need be, it could be reheated and reused elsewhere. Thankfully in the 80s there was a breakthrough; the medicine was mixed with a rubber base and coated on to a thin piece of cloth that adhered to your skin making transportation of the plasters and their use easier than ever before.
Growing up, medicinal plasters were an essential part of my personal first-aid kit. When I jammed my thumbs during volleyball practice, I used a small patch on the joint to lower the swelling. If I worked out too hard the day before and my shoulders were tight and tense, a larger patch was used to cover that area to relieve some of the pain. Not to mention when I tore my ankle, a whole package of medicinal plasters were used in trying to speed up the healing process. Though the medicinal plasters have done a lot to help me through my bumps and bruises over the years, I never really thought about what kind of ingredients were inside these sticky squares of medicine or if there were different types for different aches and pains.
For those holding their breath, relax; there are no bad chemicals or anything horribly dangerous contained in the patches but there are some warnings to take heed of. The adhesive for various patches has been known to cause some skin irritation for those with sensitive skin. Make sure you only use the patch only for as long as directed, to prevent any irritation. Plasters containing TCM sometimes have a slightly funky medicinal smell; I’ve had friends comment on the aroma quite a few times. Thankfully, the aroma fades away after a couple hours of use.
The main ingredients of patches are Methyl Salicylate, which is a chemical that can cause a mild cold or warm/burning sensation when used. Menthol is also used, which adds to that cooling sensation. The more basic patches, for simple pain relief of tense muscles, contain the two chemicals above as the main source along with the ingredients for the adhesive. More TCM orientated patches will have various medicinal ingredients, including Rhubarb Rhizome, Mylabris Beetle (yes, a type of beetle), Taraxacum Plant (dandelion), Acacia Plant-resin, Myrrh Resin, and Carthamus Flower (safflower), to name just a few.
Now, if the idea of using these plasters for your aches and pains appeals to you, here’s a quick guide to the various types that exist for different problems:
Wu Yang Pain-Relieving Plaster
Provides cooling pain relief and does not penetrate deep into the skin. It can be used if there is swelling, heat and inflammation from sprains, strains, tears or pulled muscles.
Yunnan Piaoyao Plaster
This is the best all around plaster for traumatic injury, because it’s effective in stopping internal bleeding and healing wounds. This plaster can be used for acute injuries even if there is swelling or inflammation.
It contains herbs that reduce pain, heals damaged muscles, tendons and ligaments. This should not be used while there is still inflammation, heat, and redness.
Hua Tuo Anticontusion Rheumatism Plaster
If there is still residual stiffness, pain and the injury feels cold or sensitive after 3-4 weeks of the initial injury its best to use this plaster. It is also good for chronic injuries that ache in cold, damp weather.
Gou Pi Plaster
This is the strongest plaster that can be bought in a Chinese pharmacy. It has medicine mixed with pine resin allowing the herbs to penetrate deeply, which stimulates the healing process more quickly than other types of plaster.
If you’re interested in other TCM methods and beliefs on how to cure aches, sprains and tears click here.
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