Chinese medicine and in particular Chinese sportsmedicine is a topic where I have a lot of experience while growing up in a Chinese family. I’ll leave out acupuncture and other modalities for another time and perhaps get a guest post from my Canadian Chiro and ART specialist Gerry Ramogida.
The biggest complaint with most Chinese medicine (and sportsmedicine) is the smell and the taste
I can tell you from experience there were 3 topical analgesics in our household. I won’t get into the ones you ingest because the taste of some of them were quite foul… but supposedly good for you.
I also won’t get into bear gall bladder or tiger tail & testicles, or rhino horn powder… I’ll save those stories for the animal rights activist groups. I did however cover Shark Fin soup and shark cartilage in the previous article Shark Fin Soup and Benefits of Shark Cartilage for those who are interested.
Heat vs Cold
Let’s not confuse two different functions in rubs and ointments. That is, warming up the legs, and treating sore muscles. Most athletes I know use a “one cream fits all”. Sprinters would apply the cream to their hamstrings, calves, and thighs to "keep it warm and prevent pulling or cramping".
That being said, you have to understand when and where to use "Heat and Cold"
- Cold is a must to reduce inflammation or swelling or injury.
- Heat helps in aiding circulation.
Until recently, Chinese sportsmedicine did not use ice! I guess ice machines don’t exist in China. When China participated in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, they were surprised to see ice being used to treat injuries. It was always “heat”.
Typical 3 Products
Basically, there were 3 products in our household medicine cabinet, and the use varied from the type and location of the muscle pain and soreness. Sometimes, just the heat itself provided the relief.
- Tiger Balm
- Zheng Gu Shui
- Wood Lock Oil
These products are very inexpensive especially if you have a ChinaTown in your city (Vancouver and San Francisco will be the luckiest cities). Just don’t order FOUR items in a store, as 4 (or 44) is an unlucky number! For a primer on why 4 is unlucky and 8 is lucky, read my previous article 8-8-8 Lucky Numbers in China for Beijing Olympics
All of the items are below 3oz or 100ml which satisfies air travel regulations for carry on luggage.
I’ve used this since the 1970’s and became mainstream popular when I saw a Joe Montana commercial.
The packaging is extremely small and compact and fits anywhere.
In a pinch, I use the traditional Tiger Balm Pain Relieving Ointment which is a combination of special oils… Cassia oil as the active ingredient for pain relief, and menthol and camphor as the warming ingredient by assisting in vasodilatation. More recently, eucalyptus oil has been added to the compound. (It was like the Old Coke/New Coke change in formulation. I liked the old formula better. Eucalyptus oil is for steam rooms and steam baths!)
Ironically, topical vasodilatation, or vasodilatation of the skin, causes the blood vessels at the skin to release heat, which gives it a warm feeling. The side effect is you are losing heat! It’s like giving alcohol to a cold person. You feel warm, but in essence you are actually losing heat usually though your head.
Zheng Gu Shui
In Chinese, it literally translates to "bone-setting solution" or “rectify bones liquid”
The label claims Zheng Gu Shui assists healing by promoting blood circulation and regenerating the bone tissue.
“Improve blood circulation” I can understand and accept (see above). But as a kid, I wondered how the hell does it get absorbed all the way into the bone tissue? Even as an adult, I question how.
According to tradition, Zheng Gu Shui is used primarily to treat arthritis, fractures, dislocation, sprains, and strains. For arthritis and fractures, I assume the ointment helps with pain relief in the surrounding area. I can’t imagine the voodoo herbs and roots penetrating from the skin down to the bone.
As expected, menthol and camphor are the active warming ingredients. Here is a partial list which varies to safeguard their secret recipe of roots and bark:
- Menthol (5.6%)
- Camphor (5.6%)
- Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) rhizome (hu zhang)
- Guangxi Zedoaria rhizome (guang xi e zhu)
- Croton root (ji gu xiang) listed as "camphor wood"
- Angelica root (bai zhi)
- Moghania root (yi tiao gen, qian jin ba)
- Inula cappa root (tu mu xiang, da li wang)
- Tien-chi ginseng root (san qi)
- Cinnamon bark (gui zhi)
Wood Lock Oil
Another popular item at home was Wong To Yick – Wood Lock Medicated Oil.
The 4 main ingredients are (you guessed it) Camphor, Menthol, Methyl Salicylate (commonly known as oil of wintergreen), and Turpentine Oil.
CAUTION: In 2007, 17 year old Arielle Newman, a cross-country runner at Notre Dame Academy, died after her body absorbed methyl salicylate through excessive use of topical muscle-pain relief products. (Link here) Methyl Salicylate is the main ingredient in Bengay .
Like Zheng Gu Shui Analgesic, Wood Lock Medicated Oil can also be used before or after exercise to treat soreness. My only caveat using heat rubs and muscle rubs BEFORE workouts is your skin may break out in a rash or get prickly heat from excessive heat.
Having open pores from exercising will just make the rash worse. As well, exercise and heat can increase absorption.
As always, test any rubs, creams or lotions before a major meet, and test it on a small affected area like your arms (biceps and triceps). You can always run with a bad rash on the arms. The groin area… well… your mileage may vary.