It was only the second week of my internship when a distraught patient came in to the clinic for an 8:15 appointment. She was a regular patient who had been coming in every two weeks for maintenance care, but this morning she was in excruciating pain. Over the weekend, she had been moving in to a new apartment and while carrying a heavy coffee table she had thrown her back out. She couldn’t stand up straight, there were tears in her eyes – her pain level was off the charts.
Luckily my supervisor, Dr. Yubin Lu, knew exactly what to do. After the patient was lying face down on the table, he said to me, “Palpate for the most painful spot, prick at that point with a lancet until you get a couple drops of blood, then mix the blood with Yunnan Bai Yao powder to make a paste. Then, put a Band-Aid over the spot and have the patient keep it on for at least three hours.”
I followed his instruction to a T, and it was miraculous! The patient walked out of there standing straight. She came back for an additional appointment that week and two the following week to clear the last of the pain and be able to get back to running.
So, what is Yunnan Bai Yao (云南白药) and why does it work so well?
Yunnan Bai Yao is an herbal blend that is made by the Yunnan Bai Yao Group, a state-owned company in China. It is a proprietary product, so the precise recipe is a trade secret. It was originally developed as an herbal remedy to stop bleeding from gunshot wounds and has since been discovered to be effective in treating all kinds of acute musculoskeletal pain.
Unlike many Chinese herbal formulas, this one does not come down to us from ancient times; it was invented in 1902. It was widely used by Chinese forces during the Second World War, and it is credited with saving thousands of lives. It was also used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.
While we don’t know exactly what herbs are used, the chief herb of the formula is San Qi (三七), or notoginseng root (Panax notoginseng). By itself, San Qi is used to treat both internal and external bleeding, and it alleviates pain caused by what TCM calls “blood stasis” – static blood that is not doing its normal, healthy job of moving through the blood vessels and instead is pooled up somewhere doing nothing. A bruise is an example of “blood stasis.” San Qi helps get rid of bruises and similar types of pain. Used on its own, San Qi is not as effective as Yunnan Bai Yao which combines San Qi with other herbs.
Using Yunnan Bai Yao for Your Health
Yunnan Bai Yao has become so popular in China for treating pain that it is now available in many forms. There are plasters and patches that can be applied externally, and there’s even an aerosol spray that you can spritz on whatever area is hurting you. Yunnan Bai Yao is also available as a pill to treat internal bleeding, from nosebleeds or blood in the urine and excessive menstrual bleeding. It is quick and very effective.
As one of the most commonly used herbal formulas in China (and around the world), Yunnan Bai Yao is also one of the most heavily studied. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center:
Studies done in the lab and in animals show that YNBY [Yunnan Bai Yao] and notoginseng have hemostatic, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. Notoginseng also demonstrated anticoagulant properties.
Clinical studies suggest that YNBY may be effective in treating bleeding in the uterus, ulcer in the colon and on the skin. It also reduced blood loss during some surgical procedures. (https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/yunnan-baiyao)
As more people become interested in traditional herbal remedies, we can hope to see more scientific studies to help us understand the biochemical mechanisms at work.