Counter irritation is one of the earliest forms of healing. It has long been thought that pain can be relieved and healing promoted by irritating an area of the skin.

Despite its lineage, the mode of action of counter irritation has been poorly understood. In recent years, however, with a fuller understanding of pain mechanisms and body responses to injury, just how these ancient methods work is becoming clearer.

Methods of Counter Irritation Many things from noxious chemicals to sharp instruments have been used to provide the irritant stimulus. The following is a list of a few:

  • Cupping: The air inside a small jar is heated and the mouth of the jar is placed on the skin, as the air inside cools a vacuum is created. This draws blood and other body fluid to the surface of the skin creating bruising and swelling.
  • Scarification: use of a sharp instrument to scratch the skin.
  • Blistering: use of heat or very irritant chemical to produce blisters on the skin.
  • Massage: if deep enough massage will produce reddening and minor and transient damage to the underlying tissue, this in turn will cause minor irritation. Deep massage generally has greater therapeutic benefit than the light surface variety.
  • Irritant chemicals: Very many of these have been used over the years. Those commonly used are belladonna (deadly nightshade) and mustard plasters, both of these will cause blisters if left on long enough. Many embrocations are mildly irritant substances which cause low level inflammation, examples are menthol, turpentine and camphor.

    The most popular view involves the gate theory of pain. This postulates that sensation from non-pain nerve endings such as those which transmit heat and pressure sensation will, if given enough stimulation, cause an overload in the nerve traffic up the spinal cord to the brain. When this happens it is more difficult for signals from pain receptors (nociceptors) to reach the brain. Since pain is only felt when nerve impulses from pain receptors get to the brain, pain will be diminished or not felt at all. This explains how counter irritation works for pain but it does not account for the healing properties attributed to it. Historically counter irritation has been used to treat many illnesses. A book published in 1908 by an eminent doctor of the time suggests various methods of counter irritation as remedies for diseases as diverse as cholera, pericarditis, rheumatism and pneumonia.

    Few today would suggest that counter irritation techniques should be used for anything other than pain control and the treatment of strains, sprains and some rheumatic complaints. However it is interesting to speculate on other possible mechanisms of these methods especially as some therapies which have a counter irritant component such as deep massage and acupuncture seem to have effects beyond simply pain control.

    It has been discovered from studies on trauma patients that the body has a range of responses to injury. Hormones involved in the stress response such as cortisol and adrenalin are produced in greater quantities, the bone marrow starts to produce more white cells, red cells and platelets. These cells are to help increase immunity and cope with any blood loss resulting from the trauma. The brain produces endorphins to dampen down pain and also possibly fear in certain circumstances. Although these studies are on seriously injured subjects, it’s possible that micro trauma, like a small burn or needle prick, may elicit a minor trauma response and therefore some of the therapeutic effects of counter irritation.

    Similarly the body initiates an inflammation reaction in response to trauma. This is the red, swollen and sore event that occurs on injury or infection. Although unpleasant the inflammatory response is necessary to protect the body from spread of infection and to clear up damaged tissue.

    The body cannot start its healing and tissue repair process until inflammation is switched off. Needless to say the body has a number of mechanisms that can do this. However sometimes these don’t come into play as soon as they might. In some autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis the inflammatory process becomes semi-permanent – hence the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to treat this condition. This is conjecture but it may be that applying a bit of “extra” injury to or near an affected area with a needle for example, is enough to trigger a little more inflammation and then in turn press the inflammation “switch off button” and allow healing to take place as a sort of wakeup call for the body’s anti-inflammatory and healing processes.

    Irritant & Counterirritant Ayurvedic Action:
    Some herbs have the irritant action on the place of application and thus help in reducing the inflammation of the internal organs or body parts. These herbs excite the nerves and this excitation causes local dilatation of blood vessels by reflex action. These plants possess hot and sharp qualities and increase the Pitta. This activity of Irritation and Counter-Irritation is manifested in two ways.
  • Local Action: On local application, the signs of local irritation appear.
  • General Effects: Cardiovascular and respiratory centers are excited and heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and leukocyte count in blood increase.

  • Counterirritant :
  • To decrease the inflammation of internal organs e.g. in Pneumonia, Pleuritis, Hepatitis.
  • To help in absorption of excess fluid in internal cavities e.g. in pleural cavity, synovial cavity.
  • To lessen the pain e.g. Sciatica pain.
  • To reduce the excitation of Central nervous system e.g. in Hysteria.
  • To stimulate the Central Nervous System e.g. in Syncope, intoxication and loss of consciousness.
  • To relieve the muscular spasms e.g. in dysentery, backache.
  • To facilitate the bodily humors to become superficial from deeper parts for their cleansing e.g. mustard seed application in toes in Osteoarthritis.

  • Ayurvedic For Rubefacients:
    These herbs cause the redness in skin due to local dilatation of blood vessels (Hyperemia) . Usually some itching, burning and pain also occur with redness e.g. Rai (Indian mustard or Brassica juncea).

    Ayurvedic For Vesicants:
    These strong irritants cause vesicles over the skin e.g. Chitraka (Leadwort or Plumbagozeylanica).

    Herbal Putulants:
    These strong irritants produce pustules like Jaipala (Purging croton or Croton tiglium).

    These herbs destroy the area where they are applied and produce inflammation in adjoining area e.g. Alkalis.

    Ayurvedic Herbs Information For Anti- Phlogistics:
    These herbs suppress the inflammation or abscess on external application e.g. Kundaru (Indian olibanum tree or Boswelliaserrata).

    Inflammatory Cycle Shortening :
    These herbs help in earlier completion of inflammation and thereby reduce its span e.g.Tila (Sesamum or Sesamumindicum), Sarashapa (Mustard or Brassica campestris).

    ‘Darana’ Or Abscess-Mouth-Opening Herbs:
    These herbs help to open the mouth in superficial abscess for the drainage of pus. These are dominant in Earth and Fire elements e.g. Chitraka (Leadwort or Plumbagozeylanica). Herbs Assisting Pus Drainage Superficially: These herbs compress the mature, pus filled and open or mouthed abscess and help in extraction of pus e.g. Yava (Barley), Pichchhila barks (Barks with Sliminess). The paste of these herbs are applied over the abscess leaving its mouth open.

    Ayurvedic Herbs Information For Emollients & Demulcents:
    These substances produce the unctuousness, softness and moistness in the body. These are of two types. u Substances used Externally: These are to be applied over the skin and massaged. u Substances used Internally: These are to be consumed to get this effect in the body. Four Types Of Demulcents In Ayurveda: Clarified Butter, Oil, Fats and Bone Marrow. Oil is the best for external application and Clarified butter is the best for internal use. There are hundreds or thousands preparations formulated with especially oil and clarified butter as the base and herbs are used to medicate them. These are very good for both external and internal use.

    Herbs Assisting Demulcent Action:
    Some herbs are helpful to promote the action of demulcent herbs like Mulethi (Liquorice or Licorice or Glycyrrhizaglabra), Mridavika (Grape or Vitisvinifera).

    Herbs Promoting Dryness Or Roughness:
    These herb produce dryness, hardness and smoothness in body. These have dry, light, rough, hot, stable, smoothness and hard qualities. e.g. Yava (Barley). These are used when there is excess of fat in body like obesity.

    Ayurvedic Herbs Information For Enhancing Complexion:
    These herbs promote the normal complexion of face. All the three bodily humors esp. Pitta and blood are primarily affected. These can be used externally or internally. Along with good nutrition and their use, the healthy glow and radiance of skin can be obtained e.g. Sariva (Indian Sarsaparilla or Hemidesmusindicus), Manjistha (Indian madder or Rubiacordifolia), Chandan (Sandal wood or Santalum album).

    Herbs For Itching:
    These herbs reduce the itching in the skin. e.g. Chandan (Sandal wood or Santalum album), Ushira (Khaskhas grass or Vetiveriazizaniodis), Nimba (Margossa Tree or Azadirachta).