Herbal Medicine for Post-Disaster and Acute Trauma

In disaster and post-disaster situations, first aid and herbal medicine skills and implementation could be life-saving. After the recent tragedy of the tornadoes in Kentucky, our hearts go out to all of the victims. We put together some information that could be helpful now and in future situations. From treating acute injuries to herbal protocols for stress and possible health issues that could come from cleanup, we hope this overview helps the community of Kentucky as they move forward.

Acute Trauma:

There are several things to consider when dealing with acute trauma using herbal medicine. For instance: What type of injury is it? Is the skin broken or not? If there is bleeding, has it been stopped? Is there infection or possibility of infection due to the nature of how the injury occurred? What does the injury look like? Is there tendon, nerve, bone or vascular damage? How old is the wound?

This article is an overview, so as an overview, here is a table of some very useful herbs and their uses throughout the healing of acute, traumatic injury. For the purposes of this article, I will only use common names rather than scientific names of the plants, however if you are interested in plant medicine, you will want to also start learning scientific names in order to always be certain of what plant you are learning about. Common names can be very ambiguous sometimes.

Acute Illness:

Moving from acute trauma into acute illness, we know that when people get sick all of a sudden, there is often some type of infectious agent involved. Illness is caused by more than just pathogens, but a combination of a weakened immune system (from things like exhaustion, poor sanitation, poor nutrition, chemical toxins, stress and sleep deprivation) combined with an exposure to some type of pathogen, is quite often what causes an acute illness to take place.

Even when we’re using herbs, it can be very important to identify the pathogen. For example: Is it a viral infection? Or a bacterial one?

In general, we classify pathogens as follows:

• Virus (Cold, flu, hepatitis, etc.)

• Bacteria (E. coli, staphylococcus, streptococcus, etc.)

• Protozoan (cryptosporidium, giardiasis, etc.)

• Parasitic worms or “helminths”(tape worm, flat worm, etc.)

As a general rule, here is a table of some herbs that are effective for certain types of pathogens.

Common Medicinal Plant Uses for Organ Systems:

There is another useful way to think about medicinal plants and their use for our health. This is shown in their use for a specific organ system or part of the body. This often makes the herbs for that area very useful on different levels for whatever disease processes we find in that region of the body. This is not always a matter of anti-pathogenic herbs. There are other ways of helping the body heal through tissue and nutritive support. For instance if you have strep throat, while you would want to take certain anti-microbial herbs, your body would also obtain great assistance from herbs that support the mucosal and sub-mucosal layers of the throat that are being attacked. There are certain herbs that have more of an affinity for this type of tissue than other herbs do.

Here is a chart showing several medicinal plants that are very useful for different organ systems and areas of the body, as well as the disease processes that we commonly find in those respective areas:

Chronic Illnesses:

Chronic illness is a huge concern to a lot of people focused on disaster preparedness who may have a chronic condition that requires pharmaceutical medication. People with diabetes, epilepsy, hypertension, heart conditions and multitudes of other chronic illnesses that people in the USA take medications for every day.

While there is obviously no way to address full herbal and natural treatment of a chronic condition within the limitations of an article this size, or even any article (as opposed to in-person consultation), I can at least point you in the right direction in regards to some of the most chronic and problematic illnesses in a post-disaster situation. In the chart below, there are a list of general chronic conditions and the herbs that may be effective in helping your body deal with those conditions. Please bear in mind that there is a lot more to treatment of a chronic disease than just taking one or more of the herbs in the table. This list is a general list, and the manner in which herbs are taken, as well as the use of other herbs, exercise and nutrition not stated in the list, will likely apply to any chronic condition. Again, herbalism is not western pharmaceutical medicine. We don’t just eat a plant in the same way that pharmaceutical medicine has conditioned us to “pop a pill” and forget about any and all other aspects of our health. Especially in the realm of chronic conditions, there often has to be a complete lifestyle change and a change in your own level of awareness and responsibility toward your own body and understanding what it needs to slowly balance itself into better health. All chronic conditions have underlying causes that are often not addressed by pharmaceutical medicine, and have to be addressed when using herbal or natural medicine. This also includes many energetic concepts that need to be taken into account, dosage concerns over a long period of time, etc. However, this list is at least a very basic starting point.

Some quick answers to Common Questions about herbs:

How do you prepare and take herbs?

Herbs have a few advantages over conventional medicine. One of them is that the route of ingestion or absorption by your body can have a lot of different variations. This means that we can put the herb into or onto a region of the body where it is much more effective. Taking an herb only orally means that the herb has to pass through the body’s digestive system before being absorbed into the bloodstream. During this process, it is filtered (to a large extent) through the liver before finally ending up in the bloodstream and having its effect in that manner. There are many herbs, however, that will not work effectively through the bloodstream in this manner.

At The Human Path herbal medic courses, we learn how to make a huge variety of herbal preparations in hands-on classes. Preparations like tinctures, glycerites, salves, oils, liniments, cough syrups, capsules, baths, poultices, plasters, suppositories, steam inhalations, eye washes, throat sprays, teas (infusions), decoctions, and more. We also have an online herbology course that covers the same fundamental material and skills.

Knowing how to make and use all of the various preparation methods of herbs is as important as knowing the herb itself. Usually, direct application of the herb (or solution containing as much of the herb as possible) to the part of the body that needs it, means a much more effective pathway to help the body heal.

How do herbs heal the body?

As mentioned earlier in the article, one of the common misunderstandings about herbs is that an herb is like pharmaceuticals. For instance, you just take the plant orally like a pill and it directly kills all bacteria (good and bad). However, this is not an effective way to use herbs at all. Although many herbs have very anti-pathogenic properties and do work in this way against pathogens, the real goal when using herbs is to let the plant medicine help the body’s own natural immunity move back into balance so that it can heal itself.

Can herbs be dangerous?

Just like any potent medicine, medicinal herbs range in and toxicity between “power food” (example: nettles leaves) and “poison” (example: foxglove). In the list of herbs that are in this article, the following herbs should, to varying degrees, be taken internally only with care – especially for children or during pregnancy: Chaparral, Poke, Blue Flag, Comfrey, Horsetail, and Lobelia.

If you’re looking for information on how to handle physical injuries, here is some guidance:

The Mindset of the Medic

One way to think about first aid in a post-disaster environment is what I call the “mindset of the medic.”  This means that you are prepared to provide medical help and care for someone for the first few minutes after an injury, as well as the first few hours, the first few days and possibly the first few months.  You must incorporate the full spectrum of medical care into your training.  This means that first aid is also “last aid,” and is the kind of medical aid you are providing from start to finish for someone, no matter how long that might be.

Must-Know First Aid

Some of the most important and very basic life-saving procedures that will give you the greatest “bang for the buck” in wilderness first aid skills are:

  • How to treat major (or minor) blood loss from an open wound
    • Know how to make a compression bandage, both with elastic wrap (like ACE wrap bandages) as well as with basic cloth (non-elastic)
    • Know how to make a tourniquet with any kind of strap (cravat, belt, strip of cloth, etc.)
    • Know how to inspect a wound for further damage such as tendons, nerve, etc., if the bleeding is not heavy enough to require immediate compression
  • How to treat a sucking chest wound
    • Know how to check for an exit wound (especially in the case of a gunshot wound to the chest)
    • Know how to apply a 3-sided and a 4-sided occlusive dressing
    • Understand the signs and symptoms of a pneumo- and/or hemothorax (collapsing lung due to air or blood)
  • How to treat shock
    • Understand the signs and symptoms of shock
    • Understand the importance of keeping the injured person calm, warm, hydrated and secure
  • How to treat major infection
    • Know how to identify infected tissue
    • Know the signs and symptoms both locally (around a wound) as well as systemically (throughout the whole body)
    • Know how to treat infection without being able to rely on antibiotics
  • How to treat a broken bone
    • Understand how to identify a fracture of a bone
    • Know how to splint and bandage fractures throughout the body such as fingers/toes, hand, wrist, arm, rib, collarbone, pelvis, thigh, lower leg, foot
  • How to treat dislocations
    • Know how to identify and reduce (reset) a dislocation of the shoulder
    • Understand how to identify a dislocation of the hip, elbow, finger, toe, knee

Some Basics:

Actually going into how to treat all of the above injuries in a post-disaster environment would be well beyond the scope of an article of this size.  I am currently writing a wilderness herbal first responder (WHFR) manual to go with our WHFR course at The Human Path.  It is the first book I know of that embraces both field medicine, sports medicine and in-depth herbal medicine from the standpoint of a clinical herbalist and former medic.  

However, in this article I will go into a little bit of wilderness first aid depth on one subject.  Let’s talk about lacerations, since that is a pretty common occurrence and is usually a minor to medium injury in a non-primitive environment, but can be a major concern in a post-disaster environment.

I like to say, “Treat every wound AS IF it were a life threatening one.”  ASIF is a mnemonic to help you remember some basic laceration treatment:

  • A = Amount of Bleeding or Blood Loss.  Is this an arterial or a venous bleed?  An arterial bleed will be a brighter red and usually pulsing or streaming out.  If it is arterial, we must stop the bleed either using a compression bandage or a tourniquet.  A compression bandage is easiest to create using an elastic wrap (like an ACE wrap) and a sterile gauze (one or more 4 x 4’s or Kerlix or some other type of sterile gauze).  Place the gauze directly onto the laceration and apply pressure – or have the victim or a helper apply direct pressure.  If possible, elevate the wound while you are doing this.  Now wrap your elastic bandage around the gauze, wrapping from distal (closer to the fingers or toes) toward proximal (nearer to the heart) for the first set of wraps.  This helps prevent pooling of venous blood in the extremity especially if the wrap is tight.  To apply more pressure directly on the wound, don’t wrap more tightly.  That will cut off circulation.  Instead, turn the elastic wrap one half turn so that the wrap folds over itself right on top of the wound, and keep wrapping.  You can repeat this every time you come around to the wound with the wrap.
  • S = Shock.  Where there is an injury of any severity, there will be some type of shock, even if psychogenic shock.  Keep the victim reassured, calm, warm and as comfortable as possible.  Don’t say meaningless things like, “everything’s going to be alright,” but allow your attitude to be strong and supportive.  The more reassured the victim is that there is real help, the more his/her body can do what it needs to do most which is focus on healing without major adrenaline, psychological stress and other factors that will negatively affect their physiology of balance.
  • I = Irrigate.  If this is not a life-threatening arterial bleed and it is possible to get into the wound and wash it out, you must do so.  In a post-disaster environment, anything that you get cut, stabbed or otherwise injured with is probably filthy.  You must clean this wound if possible. As thoroughly and as quickly as possible.
  • F = Functional or Further Damage.  If you are able to irrigate this wound, this is the perfect time to inspect the wound for any type of functional damage.  Were there tendons, nerves or major vessels cut?  What does the damage look like?  Can the victim move their fingers and/or toes or whatever is either distal or proximal to the wound?  If there is functional damage to the area, then the treatment needs to include that, or at least recognize the issue.  For example, if an extensor tendon was severed, there is no way to heal that without surgery.  Or maybe if it was only nicked and you can see that, you know you need to keep the victim from extending that digit to let it heal.

What about stitches?

It’s always exciting to think of stitching up a wound (suturing) for a lot of preppers.  However, in a post-disaster, remote or primitive environment, suturing – at least for a wound that is simple enough for a layperson to suture – is highly irresponsible.  It is unnecessary and will only create infection.  Instead, leave it bandaged to stay as clean as possible, but let it heal without stitching.  Steri-strips are fine.  Tight bandaging is fine (within reason).  Herbal poultices are great and will help reduce inflammation, pain and can increase tissue proliferation (healing).  Suturing a wound in the field, on the other hand, is something to stay away from.

Infection 

The biggest issue that you have to be aware of with an open wound in a post-disaster environment is infection.  Dealing with infection is a matter of catching it as early as possible – which means knowing what to look for.  All wounds will show some signs of inflammation, and also will have some degree of infection present.   You have to monitor the wound, however, and determine between infection and inflammation.  Here are some key points:

  • Redness – Inflammation will create some redness, but infection will usually create more of it (more inflamed tissue area) and will often appear a brighter hue of red.
  • Swelling – Inflammation will produce swelling as will infection.  Swelling from infection is usually due to pus, however, produces a sharp pain if touched, and will drain.
  • Pain – Inflammation will produce pain that is more “achey” while infection will produce a sharper pain, especially if it hurts while that part of the body is resting, or is an extremely sharp pain when moving it after remaining motionless for some time.  The pain found with infection may be local to a specific area, or may be spread across a larger area than inflammation pain, which will generally be consistent around the wound area only.
  • Pus (exudate) – Pus is a sign of infection, not inflammation.
  • Fever – Fever is a serious sign of infection that is further along than you would ever want it to be in the field.  
  • Streaking – Red streaks that follow along veins, is a sign of serious infection.

Dealing with Infection

The classic orthodox treatment for infection is of course antibiotics?  But what if you have no antibiotics? Or what if you don’t have the right kind?  Or what if the infection is resistant to your antibiotics?  Or what if you really don’t have the medical education to use antibiotics and recognize whether they are working, if there are allergic reactions, etc.?

From any perspective, the first thing you must do to a wound (see above) is of course clean it.  If an infection starts to take hold in the damaged tissue, the first thing you must do, once again, is clean it.  The best and most efficient way to clean out infected tissue in an open wound is with activated charcoal.  You can buy activated charcoal in capsule or tablet form, or just carry the powder in your first aid kit (we stock our herbal first aid kits with this as well) – which is how I do it.  You can make activated charcoal as well, but the USP, food-grade activated charcoal is the most efficient and powerful effect you can get.

Using Charcoal

Make a paste with the charcoal and clean (preferably distilled) water.  The charcoal forms a weak bond with water and will pick up anything else in the wound once it is in contact with it.  It is a micro-sponge that will clean and adsorb toxins, bacteria and all of the dead tissue that is creating more food for bacterial growth.  Mix the charcoal and water into a slurry or paste and put it in and around the wound directly.  Place a sterile or clean gauze over the top and keep it in place with an elastic wrap or some other manner that works for you.  You will see a change in the tissue state within hours, and should plan on changing out the charcoal poultice at least every few hours until the wound tissue no longer appears infected.

Antibacterial Herbs

There are many antibacterial herbs, and I use them in conjunction with tissue proliferative herbs in order to keep pathogenic bacterial growth at bay while working with a wound.  I don’t usually use them until the wound is free from infection and the tissue looks good (inflamed, injured, but not infected). I do not put the herb directly into the wound generally, but make a poultice out of water and the powdered herb and fold it inside of sterile gauze (like a tea bag, except larger).  It is important to use a lot of herb when doing this.  Cover the wound area completely and then some.  You want the mix of water and herb to drip into and around the wound to assist in wound healing and keep pathogenic bacteria from growing.  Here are a few useful herbs for wound healing, anti-infective and anti-inflammation properties:

  • Chapparal (Larrea tridentata) – Not only highly antibacterial, but also anti-inflammatory and an amazing tissue proliferative (increases wound healing). 
  • Myrrh (Commifera molmol) – Highly antibacterial, especially gram positive bacteria like strep and staph.
  • Usnea  (Usnea thallus) – A lichen that is also highly antibacterial.  Necessary to pound or grind it enough to open up the outside layer of the strands and expose the inside.
  • Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium) root or any of the Berberidiceae family such as Algerita, Barberry, etc.  Also Goldenseal although that’s a different family.  Very anti-microbial herb.
  • Plantain (Plantago spp.) Great tissue healing (proliferative) herb and also has anti-bacterial components (baicalin) that help inhibit the formation of gram positive bacterial bio-films.  Makes this an excellent “helper herb” in a formula.
  • Cone Flower (Echinacea spp.) Very effective topically on toxic wounds especially – when there is toxin from poisonous insects, reptiles or dead tissue involved.

Lymph Movers

Along with external poultices and tissue care, it is also necessary to take herbs internally in order to help the immune system deal with an infection, as well as promote healing.  Here are a few herbs that help stimulate the immune system, the lymph, and help tissue heal:

  • Poke (Phytolacca americana) root – this is a very potent herb and should be used in a formula and with care.  However, it is a highly effective lymph stimulator and lymph mover to assist the body in dealing with infection
  • Cone Flower (Echinacea spp.)  – Echinacea stimulates white blood cell (WBC) creation and activity.  
  • Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) – Boneset also greatly increases WBC counts.  Arguably better than Echinacea, even, and that’s saying a lot.
  • Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) – Gotu Kola is an amazing tissue proliferative whether taken internally or applied externally.  This herb will increase the speed of tissue healing.
  • Self Heal Spike (Prunella vulgaris) – Increases the speed of endothelial tissue healing in damaged blood vessels and capillaries while lowering inflammation, thereby increasing circulation to the wound area and speeding healing.
  • Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtilis) – Increases microcirculation in the wound area and speeds healing as well as keeping the area clean and infection free.

In conclusion, understand that skills are generally more important than supplies when it comes to post-disaster medicine.  Most importantly, skills are more important than supplies when it comes to herbal first aid.  Being able to identify and use medicinal plants is knowledge that means you never have to be without medicine.  Plus, this is a skill you can start learning immediately.  It may be a lifetime of learning, but you can do so without having to change your life (i.e. go to med school, etc.).  Check out my online Herbal Medic Level 1 course if you’d like to get started with a practical, inexpensive yet in-depth exploration into field medicine using plants.