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Herbal baths, soaks, and compresses can ease pain, reduce inflammation, and alleviate skin conditions.

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Herbal-based hydrotherapy involves preparing herbs in water in some form, and bringing that herb-infused water in contact with the body. For example, a compress such as a cloth soaked in hot, strongly brewed herbal tea, and applied to skin can relax tight muscles and dilate blood vessels in skin, while cold compresses constrict those vessels. Herbal essential oils may also be diluted and used in a compress. A similar preparation, a poultice, is a thick, sticky mass of herbs (fresh or powdered) mixed with warm water or oil and applied directly to the skin.


A GINGER compress is a time-honored remedy for sore joints, as it helps to bring blood to an area to help speed healing. In a recent study, researchers evaluated changes in symptoms before and after topical ginger treatment for adults with moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis. Twenty adults with chronic osteoarthritis received seven consecutive days of topical ginger treatments by trained nurses. The participants then self-administered the ginger treatments for 24 weeks. A decline in pain and fatigue was reported after just one week of treatment, and progressively reduced over the following 24 weeks of self-treatment. Researchers concluded that topical ginger treatment has the potential to relieve symptoms and increase independence in people with chronic osteoarthritis.

Ginger compresses also work well for carpal tunnel wrist pain, and applications have been recommended by some herbalists over the kidneys (lower back) to aid in detoxification.

Simmer the fresh herb (about ½ cup grated or sliced) or brew a strong batch of ginger tea. Soak a washcloth in this preparation and apply as needed.

MULLEIN LEAF is used to treat muscle spasms, painful joints, hemorrhoids, skin rashes, frostbite, and eczema when applied in a compress. The emollient leaves, raw or steamed, bring relief and speed healing when applied to trouble spots. You can also apply a compress soaked in strongly brewed mullein leaf tea or cooled mullein leaf tea bags. This herb can also be useful as a compress for nerve conditions such as facial neuralgia.

CALENDULA heals burns, rashes, and inflammatory skin lesions. Traditional herbalists recommend it for acne, chickenpox blisters, cold sores, chafing, stings, and even varicose veins. Make a compress with calendula tea, or fresh or dried chopped calendula flowers moistened with water.

Baths and Soaks

Essential oils can calm frazzled nerves. For a soothing bath, use valerian, lavender, chamomile, or hops essential oils. Rose or elderflower relieve inflammation, and peppermint is often used to calm
irritation and inflammation.

Treat tired feet to a soothing foot soak with an herbal decoction or essential oil blend. Try chamomile, along with peppermint, thyme, or sage. These herbs not only soothe and refresh, but also discourage the growth of harmful bacteria.

Garlic also works well as a topical preparation. Paul Bergner, clinical director of the Rocky Mountain School of Herbal Studies in Boulder, Colo., says his favorite remedy for athlete’s foot is a twice-daily garlic foot bath. To make a garlic foot bath: Crush about 6 cloves of garlic with a knife and boil in one quart of water for three minutes. Let water completely cool, and soak feet for 30 minutes.

Witch hazel has been shown in several studies to be strongly anti-inflammatory, comparable to low-dose cortisone. Add to a foot bath to ease red, swollen, painful feet associated with foot fungus or other foot-related woes.