Friday, March 15, 2013

Welcome! (spring is on its way)

Spring is on its way! That's what I heard today from some friends of mine. They flew in last night and when I heard them this afternoon, their chattering was music to my ears and brought tears to my eyes. Who are these friends of whom I speak? The red-winged blackbirds of course! They are always the first travelers to return at this time of year in the region where I live. There have been other signs. The amount of daylight is increasing by about three minutes per day. Three weeks ago the cardinals started singing their territorial songs. The song sparrows usually start singing around the same time, but with my broken leg I haven't been getting outside in the morning, which is when they usually sing at this time of year. So, I haven't heard them yet. Yesterday the robins started separating from their winter flocks and staking out their territories. But it's the return of the red-wings that really marks the turning point for me. In a week or two my other bird friends will start returning. Slowly at first, but in a month there will be many new species arriving every day. I look forward to greeting all of them! I love and embrace the blessings of all of our seasons, but I have to admit that April/May is my favorite time of the year.

Welcome back red-wings!

I'm also going to miss the winter. This year, because of my leg, I missed a lot of the most spectacular winter days because many of them occurred during the first month after my injury. At that time I wasn't very mobile and I wasn't able to spend much time outdoors, except on the sunnier, calmer days. Even then the snow was too deep for me to hobble on crutches around the land where I live.

There have been other milestones in the last couple of weeks. I have really been appreciating those days when I could sit outside and be with the land. In the last few weeks I have been able to get out more as my leg gets stronger and the snow isn't as deep. I've gone from a couple of times per week to almost every day. Sitting out there I am totally in awe and so grateful for my life and the blessings provided by our Earth Mother. A bit more than a week ago I was finally feeling strong enough to hobble out to my prayer area, stomp a trail around the circle on one foot, and dig out the offering stones in the four directions from under a bit more than a foot of snow. It was hard work in my condition but finally I was able to offer prayers and tobacco at my prayer area in the flesh. Then on Saturday I took my first walk through the back field with my dogs. I was totally elated! Finally, on Sunday I made it all the way to my prayer area in the woods. The most difficult part of the journey was hopping over the small creek in my back field. First I made offerings to Grandmother, thanking her for her sacred waters. This is one of her source waters where she flows out of the Earth. Her name is Necheng qua kekong. This is a poor representation from an old version of the Mississauga dialect of the Anishinaabe language that was recorded a couple of hundred years ago by someone who didn't understand the language. The Mississaugas were the people who lived in this area at that time. I don't know what it means, but I'm sure it's much more suitable than the "Don River". I have asked a couple of friends who are members of the Anishinaabe community if they know anyone who might be able to translate it, but so far no one has been able to.

Grandmother emerging from the Earth.

Today I was able to make it out to my prayer area in the woods for the second time. But I also managed to go further and visit the old Grandmother White Pine. This is probably my favorite sitting spot in the woods. I was so grateful to finally be able to sit there with her. It brought tears to my eyes. It's been seven weeks since I've been able to visit her. Usually when I'm not away I sit there for a bit every day. While I sat there quietly, listening to the voices of the birds and the wind, I felt so much gratitude to the Medicine and the plant people for my healing. My leg is coming along amazingly well. I will be getting an x-ray on Wednesday to make sure everything looks as good as it feels, and I should be able to start carrying some weight with my leg by the end of the week. This is half the amount of time of the original prognosis! I'll be providing more details on that next week in the next installment of my series of posts on Healing Bone Fractures. One of the reasons it has been important to me that my leg heal quickly is so that I can fulfill my manda and travel to Mexico and Lake Superior for three weeks from late April to mid May. I booked my flight yesterday! In the mean time, the spring equinox is on Wednesday and I'm looking forward to offering ceremony to honor the passing winter and officially welcome spring!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Applying a Poultice

This post is an tangent from my series on Healing Bone Fractures. In that series I have mentioned applying herbal poultices to my leg. I had considered including more details about applying a poultice in one of those posts but decided to do it separately so I can provide more details. I would like to thank my friend Elyse Portal who took some great photos while I was applying a poultice to my leg last weekend.

For the most part, a poultice is the most potent method of application of herbs to a localized area. This is because as the constituents of the herbs are absorbed into our tissues through the layer of moisture covering our skin, they are immediately replaced by more constituents from the herbs that diffuse into the layer of water. Also, the concentration of constituents is very high because the ratio of herb to liquid is very high. We are using a lot of herb and very little water.

We usually use dried herbs, but I often apply what I call a "survival poultice" if I get some kind of injury or bite when I'm wandering around in the fields and woods. In these circumstances I will find one or a few good healing herbs in my immediate area, chew them up and apply them where needed. I used to do this for my kids when they were small and we were on a hike or camping trip. You don't need to worry too much about bacteria in saliva because the antimicrobial properties of the herbs are very concentrated when applied this way and will take care of any risk of infection.

Here is the bowl of dried herbs I'm using for this particular poultice.

When using dried herbs, they should be coarsely ground. I usually rub them between my palms or use a mortar and pestle. We apply just enough boiled water to moisten them but so that they are not runny.

The herbs after moistening them with boiled water.

The purpose of the poultice I am preparing is to help heal the incisions from my surgery and to penetrate deeper into my leg to help heal my broken tibia (shinbone) as well. This poultice consists of 1 part common comfrey leaf (Symphytum officinale), 1 part stinging nettle leaf (Urtica dioica), 1 part purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria), 1 part pot marigold petals (Calendula officinalis), 1 part Canada goldenrod herb (Solidago canadensis) and 1/2 part whole flax seed (Linum usitatissimum). It is essential that a poultice is very mucilaginous. Comfrey is one of the few herbs that is mucilaginous enough that it doesn't require the addition of a more mucilaginous herb. However, since comfrey is only making up 20% of this formulation, it is necessary to add something to make it more slimy. My preference is to use a small amount of whole flax seed whenever I prepare a poultice. It will add the extra mucilage that we need and has important healing properties of its own. Never use ground flax seed. We just want the mucilage. We don't want to release the oil.

Getting ready to apply the poultice. At this point I had been poulticing the smaller incision on the right twice per day
for two weeks and the larger incision on the left for one week. There is clearly a difference between the two.

When applying a poultice I always put some gauze between the poultice and the skin. This serves two purposes: firstly, it ensures that small particles of herbs can't get into an open wound; secondly, it allows the poultice to be easily lifted off when finished without having to wipe bits of herb off the skin. This is important because when we remove the poultice we want any remaining herb infused liquid to dry on the skin. We use the minimum amount of layers of gauze to prevent bits of herb from getting through. The number of layers will depend on the thickness of the gauze.

Laying the gauze in preparation for the poultice.

When we apply the poultice we must completely cover an area a bit larger than the area we are working on with the moistened herbs and press down on them so that there is good contact with the skin. I usually apply it with a spoon and use the spoon to press the herbs once they are applied.

Beginning to apply the poultice...

...and finishing it off.

Under normal circumstances our skin is water-proof. In order to get the constituents of the herbs in our poultice to penetrate through our skin our skin must be hydrated to eliminate its water-proof characteristics. To accomplish this it is necessary for the entire area where we wish to apply the poultice to remain moist. We can't allow the skin to breathe. To accelerate this process it is also necessary that the poultice be applied as hot as we can tolerate and remain warm for the duration of the application. This process also takes time. The longer the poultice is in contact with our skin, the more hydrated our skin becomes and the better the penetration. I usually recommend a minimum of 30 minutes, but an hour or more is sometimes necessary, depending on the severity of the condition being treated. To facilitate the hydration of our skin it is best to wrap the poultice in plastic so that our skin remains in complete contact with herb infused liquid from our poultice and isn't able to breathe (no contact with air). Most types of plastic wrap are made of polyethylene which isn't known to leach any toxic chemicals. After wrapping the poultice I recommend pushing down on it once more to make sure there is good contact with the skin and no air spaces between the plastic and the herbs.

The poultice wrapped in plastic.

This whole process must be done as quickly as possible so that the herbs are still hot. Once the poultice has been wrapped in plastic it is necessary to cover it with a towel or something similar to help insulate it to keep it warm. If is going to be applied for a long period of time it may be necessary to apply a hot compress over the plastic. A cloth soaked in hot water that has been wrung out so that it isn't dripping will do. The cloth can be reheated periodically when it cools down. If the area where we need to apply the poultice isn't too large, a hot water bottle will also work and is more convenient than using a compress.

Covering the poultice with a couple of layers of towel.

Once we are done we can remove the poultice. For my leg, I have been applying a poultice for 45-60 minutes twice per day. When we use gauze the whole thing will lift off really easy.

The poultice has been uncovered and is ready to be removed.

When we remove the poultice the skin will be moist with herb infused liquid. We don't want to wipe this off. Let it dry completely before covering the area.

After removing the poultice we let the remaining liquid completely dry on the skin.
Notice the larger droplets of herb infused water.

Once the remaining herb infused water has dried completely the process is complete. We can bandage the area, if necessary, or cover it in some other way. We can also apply an ointment or liniment to the area, if appropriate, to further assist the healing process.

Which herbs we use, how often and how long we apply a poultice will depend on the situation, but the basic elements of applying a poultice will always be the same.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Healing Bone Fractures, Part 3 of 5

This is the third in a series of posts in which I am documenting the process of treating a serious fracture of my right leg. In Part 1 I discussed the details behind the injury and the initial protocols that I used with the remedies I had available while I was still away. In Part 2 I provided a detailed account of the protocols that I implemented when I returned home. In this post I am providing an update on how things are progressing four weeks after my surgery and any modifications that I have made to the protocols that I am using.

Systemic Herbal Formulation: On the fifth day after my surgery I was finally able to make a specific herbal formulation to treat my injury. I made up a 250 bottle, which lasts two weeks at the dose I am taking (for the details see Part 2). This formula ran out during the third week after my surgery. Although I was only taking it for two weeks and I could have just repeated the same formula, I decided to make a slight change to the formula. Since there is no evidence of nerve damage, I eliminated the St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum). I also substituted stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) for common horsetail (Equisetum arvense). The second version of the formulation contains turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) 18%, stinging nettle herb (Urtica dioica) 20%, boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum) 20%, American plantain herb (Plantago rugelii) 20%, common comfrey herb (Symphytum officinale) 15%, wild ginger rhizome (Asarum canadense) 5%, white pine leaf/twig (Pinus strobus) 2%. I am continuing to take 6 ml three times per day on an empty stomach, 5-10 minutes before each meal.

St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), topically, systemically and in homeopathic potencies,
is a very important herb for healing nerve damage.

Herbal Sleep Formulation: Due to the changes to my primary systemic formulation I made a slight adjustment to the sleep formulation as well so that the two formulations remain well coordinated. It now contains English lavender flowering spike (Lavandula angustifolia) 15%, St. Johnswort herb (Hypericum perforatum) 15%, catnip herb (Nepeta cataria) 15%, American plantain herb (Plantago rugelii) 15%, hop strobilus (Humulus lupulus) 15%, stinging nettle herb (Urtica dioica) 15%, turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) 9%, white pine leaf/twig (Pinus strobus) 1%. Once more this formula overlaps with and carries over some of the properties of my daytime formula while still maintaining its effectiveness as a sleep formula. Just as with plantain, it is rare for stinging nettle herb to be acknowledged as a sedative in the herbal literature. In fact, it is a very calming herb, especially when harvested a bit later in its life cycle when a some of the harvested portion includes the immature seeds. These are the most sedating part of the plant. I am continuing to take 6 ml immediately before bed and additional 3 ml doses through the night, as required.

More On Sleep: For reasons that I explained in Part 2, getting sufficient sleep has been a real challenge for me, even with the herbal sleep formula. By day 23 after my surgery I still had experienced only a slight improvement in my sleep, so I decided to go one step further and take melatonin as well. In the past I have found that clients with moderate to severe insomnia for whom an herbal sleep formula does not produce sufficient results usually respond well to the addition of a small amount of melatonin into the mix. Although I am not experiencing typical insomnia, my hope was that this will help me to sleep deeper and I won't wake up as much due to the discomfort and stiffness I have been experiencing as a result of having to lie on my back all night. I have to say, I was appalled at the poor selection of melatonin products even in a very well stocked health food store. Most of them had additional undesirable ingredients such as high doses of individual B vitamins or calcium. In addition, the doses of melatonin were way too high. Melatonin is a hormone and, although it is safe when used correctly, it is important to use only the minimum dose that will produce the desired results. The way I recommend people take it is to begin with a 0.5 mg dose for a few days. If that isn't strong enough I have them increase the dose in 0.5 mg increments (allowing a few days each time the dose is increased to determine its effectiveness) until they hit the ideal dose for them. One of the advantages of using melatonin in combination with a good herbal sedative is that they are mutually synergistic and, when taken concurrently with the herbs, the melatonin will usually produced the desired result at a very low dose. Although I did find a few products that had relatively low (1 mg) dose of melatonin, they all had other things in them that I didn't want to take. As a result, I ended up purchasing a 3 mg sublingual lozenge that I am able to cut into quarters so that each dose is approximately 0.75 mg. I take 0.75 mg of melatonin about 15 minutes before I go to bed and then take a 6 ml dose of my sleep formulation just before bed. When I wake up in the night and have difficulty falling back to sleep, if it seems that I won't have too much difficulty falling asleep I will take an additional 3 ml dose of the tincture. However, if it seems that I am going to have more difficulty, I will allow myself one more 0.75 mg dose of melatonin in addition to 3 ml of the tincture. If I wake up additional times through the night and have difficulty falling asleep I will only take the tincture. As it turns out, the first night I required two doses of melatonin but after that my sleep improved so much I only required one. I have found that I am waking up less often through the night and having less difficulty falling back to sleep when I wake up.

Homeopathics: On day 23 after my surgery, when I added the melatonin, I also diverged from the homeopathic protocols that I had intended to follow (as indicated in Part 2). I am continuing to take Symphytum 200C three times per day to support the healing of my bone. Since I was past the stage of the initial tissue trauma, I dropped the Arnica. As there seemed to be no major nerve damage, but there is a little bit of numbness of my skin along the major incision, I dropped the Hypericum 200C to one dose per day. To address the mild numbness I also kept Hypericum (St. Johnswort) in my sleep formulation even though I eliminated it from my daytime formulation. I also added Rhus 200C two doses per day. Rhus is for injuries or strains that stiffen up and feel worse when they are rested for periods of time, but feel better when we move around. These symptoms are typical for me whenever I have injuries or stiffness. I always feel better when I can move around and limber up. My hope was that the Rhus will help reduce the stiffness I am experiencing from lying on my back all night, since this stiffness is one of the things interfering with my sleep. It has helped somewhat and I have experienced a significant improvement in my sleep since adding the Rhus and melatonin to my protocols. It is my intention to continue taking these three homeopathic remedies in these doses for the next few weeks.

Eastern poison oak (Toxicodendron pubescens) was formerly classified as Rhus toxicodendron.
The names of homeopathic remedies are often based on obsolete botanical names
so as to maintain the continuity of the name with older homeopathic texts.

Topical Herbal Preparations: I have two incisions in my leg. A smaller one just below my knee and a larger one that runs down to my ankle which is the area where the plate was put in. On day 13 after my surgery all of the stitches in the smaller incision were removed, but the surgeon decided to remove only half of the stitches in my larger incision because the inflammation and edema were putting a lot of pressure on that area. He wanted me to come back in two more weeks to have the remainder of the stitches removed. On day 16 we began applying a poultice to the smaller incision from which all of the stitches had been removed (for more details about the poultice, see Part 2). We decided to use it as an opportunity to demonstrate how to apply a poultice during our Making Herbal Tinctures workshop. By day 18 it was apparent that the healing of the smaller incision was already much further along than the larger incision to which I was not yet able to apply a poultice because of the remaining stitches. I tried to get an appointment that week to see the surgeon and have the remaining stitches removed so that I could begin working on the longer incision, but there were no appointments available. As a result, I decided it was best if I removed the stitches before my appointment the following week. On day 23, herbalist (and my partner) Monika Ghent removed them for me in the morning. We allowed the holes to seal during the next few hours and began applying a poultice to the larger incision as well that night.

This photograph was taken of my leg just before we removed the remaining stitches from the larger incision.
Notice how much further along the healing is on the smaller incision which at this point I had been
poulticing for a week. The redness is in areas that were formerly covered by scabs.

Since then the protocol that I have been using is as follows:
  • When I wake up I apply the liniment I am using (see Part 2) to my whole lower leg up to and including my knee, but not to the area of the incisions themselves. I apply an ointment to the incisions. The ointment is made from the same infused oil that I used as the base for my liniment (see Part 2) with a little bit of English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil added to it (probably about 2 drops in each 25 ml jar). Both the infused oil and the ointment were made during our Herbal Field Studies field workshops.
  • In the mid afternoon I apply a poultice to both incisions (for details see Part 2). I leave them on for 30-45 minutes and then remove them and allow the plant juices to dry on my leg. I do not apply anything else at that time.
  • In the evening I apply a second poultice to both incisions. However, after I remove them and the plant juices dry on my leg I apply a comfrey (Symphytum officinale) ointment to my whole lower leg below the knee including the incisions. I had not prepared any comfrey ointment but fortunately my friend and fellow herbalist Rick DeSylva provided me with an jar of his excellent comfrey ointment.

This is what the protocols I am using look like at about 4 weeks after my surgery. There is no pain in my leg even when I touch the area where the incisions and fractures are. The surgeon was quite surprised at that. My leg feels strong and I am doing my best to stretch the tendons and ligaments in my ankle and knee so they don't tighten up too much while I'm not walking. There is some edema in my foot because I am spending a fair bit of time upright, which allows the blood and lymph to pool in my foot. This is has gone down somewhat but is still significant except when I wake up in the morning after I've been horizontal through the night. It is something I'm going to have to put up with until I start walking unless I want to spend the whole day sitting or lying with my leg raised, which is not an option.

I will continue provide updates on how things are progressing and any changes to my protocols in Part 4.