Chinese Herbal Liniments

Walk into an herb store in any city’s Chinatown and you will see shelves full of herbal products that are for external use only. Pain-relieving ointments, oils and patches, creams and lotions for your skin and on and on. Within the rich history of Chinese herbal medicine, there is a well-developed “specialty” of using herbal medicines externally. Being the tinkerer that I am, I have played around with making some herbal preparations over the years, mainly salves, balms and liniments. In today’s post I wanted to talk about how I make liniments for external application.

I generally make two liniments, one for traumatic injuries with visible swelling, inflammation and bruising (this type of liniment is traditionally called Die Da Jiu, literally “hit fall wine”), and one for chronic tendon injuries or other lingering soft-tissue injuries. Both of these types of liniments have their roots in martial arts tradition and they are used to treat injuries that may happen in the course of training. The intersection of martial arts and Chinese medicine is a strong one, with many martial arts masters being proficient in the use of Chinese herbs and acupuncture (or acupressure) techniques. Many martial arts schools have specific recipes for liniments that are passed down through generations and kept secret from outsiders.

While there may be secret recipes and closely guarded techniques for preparing these medicines, the basic method of making them is quite simple: soak herbs in alcohol for months to years, strain off liquid and use it. Of course there is a little more finesse required in determining the herbs to use, the dosages and the type of alcohol to soak in. Most say that the longer the herbs steep in the alcohol, the stronger the liniment gets. The scientist in me (he’s in there somewhere) feels that there must be a time when all of the active constituents have been extracted from the herbs and the liniment won’t really get any stronger by steeping longer. The acupuncturist in me agrees that longer is better!


Trauma Liniment Steeping in Glass Carboy

I have read a lot about making liniments and I’ve experimented with different recipes to come up with a couple that I like. I generally try to use 100 proof vodka, which is 50% alcohol and 50% water. Traditionally, rice wine was used to make the liniments and other herbal preparations (the ancients in China probably didn’t have very easy access to Nikolai 100 proof vodka!) Some of the chemical constituents in herbs are soluble in water and some in alcohol, so I like the balance that the 100 proof vodka gives you. I recommend steeping the herbs in glass containers, not plastic. I use 3 gallon carboys. I like to steep my herbs for at least 6 months and usually for a full year. I give the bottles a good shake every now and then to mix them up. If you’ve been in the office, you might have noticed a few of these bottles sitting around.


Tendon Lotion


Close up of herbs soaking


After soaking, shaking and waiting… and waiting… and waiting some more, it’s time to strain off the liquid and bottle it up.


Straining solid herbs out of the liquid


Bottling the liniment


Voila, the finished product

So just to review quickly, the Trauma Liniment would be used in the case of a recent, acute injury. A badly sprained and swollen ankle or “throwing your back out” are both good examples of when to use this. You would gently massage the liniment into the swollen area 3-5x/day.  The Tendon Lotion would be used for any nagging, lingering tendon or other soft-tissue injuries such as tennis or golfer’s elbow. The Tendon Lotion could also be used for that ankle sprain that happened months ago, isn’t really swollen or bruised anymore and just isn’t healing. The Tendon Lotion is applied the same way the Trauma Liniment is, although if you can warm the area up before applying the Tendon Lotion, that’s even better. Both of these liniments are great to have on hand at home, they are a valuable part of your home medicine kit.

If you’d like to purchase either of these liniments, just email us at the office. If you are an acupuncturist or other healthcare provider who would like to sell these products out of your office, you can also let us know via the email link.

One thought on “Chinese Herbal Liniments

  1. Hi there! I learned about your liniments while attending the Sports Medicine Acupuncture classes being held in Chicago this year. I would very much like to purchase both types, trauma & pain, and tendon liniments.

    Please inform how I can go about doing this, and thank you very much!

    Laura McCoy

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