Walking into just about any massage clinic in Thailand you will see many elements of herbal healing: rows of jars, herbs, balms and compresses. An interesting way in which Thai massage and herbal medicine overlap is in the practice of herbal compress massage. In a herbal compress massage the herbal compresses are heated in a special steamer and then the warm herb compress is then applied (either directly to skin or through thin pyjamas) during the massage. The compress itself is made of a packed bunch of herbs wrapped tightly in a thin muslin or cotton cloth. Sometimes cold (iced) compresses can be used but this is less common (but very good when treating sprains or bruises, for example).
Traditional Thai medicine uses these herbal compresses to treat a wide range of problems including pulled muscles, joint pain, arthritis and many others. The heat of the herbs has deep relaxation benefits for the muscles, and the aroma of the blend of herbs in the compress also has a relaxing and invigorating effect on mind and body. Some clients are too sensitive to receive acupressure massage directly from the fingers and palms of the massage therapist and in these cases the herbal compresses can be a good way to apply pressure along the same energy lines lines (i.e. sen lines – the same acupressure points), and joints that could not otherwise be massaged.
This way clients can have a relaxing massage experience with herbal compresses without using any massage stretches at all. Sometimes a herbal compress session is done in conjunction with a normal massage routine – for example adding a soothing 30 minute compress session at the end, to ease any residual tension.
The herbs contain natural anti-inflammatory properties, so they can reduce inflammation and also help with natural pain management.
There are a couple of common herb blends, one more common in the North and the other more common in the South. The first is used by lots of Thai massage therapists in the Chiang Mai area: dried ginger, dried lime leaves, eucalyptus leaves and cinnamon leaves, with a sprinkle of camphor crystals. The second blend is from the Wat Po school in Bangkok (where most of us studied) and uses dried ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, again with camphor crystals.
In Thailand it is considered at least as good as massage at delivering pressure to the pressure points. Here in London however, smaller massage clinics rarely employ fresh herbal compresses. We are considering including it in our services, and would love to hear from our clients whether this is something you would be interested in? Let us know next time you drop in!