Thai Traditional Medicine

By: Sarah Pierson and Leah Jeglum

Thai traditional medicine is defined as “the medical processes dealing with the examination, diagnosis, therapy, treatment, or prevention of diseases, or promotion and rehabilitation of the health of humans or animals, midwifery, Thai massage, as well as the preparation, production of Thai traditional medicines and the making of devices and instruments for medical purposes. All of these are based on the knowledge or textbooks that were passed on and developed from generation to generation”.  (Chokevivat,2005) Thai traditional medicine began during the Sukhothai period (1238-1377) and continued to the early 20th century.  It then was dismissed and replaced with western medicine became integrated back into the Thai culture in the 1970s.

There are four elements of the body involved in Thai traditional medicine: earth, water, wind and fire.  If there is an imbalance of these then it can cause illness.  Illness can also be caused by: supernatural powers, power of nature, power of the universe and kimijati. Health can also be influenced by: the elements, the seasons, age, geography, time and inappropriate behaviors.

Thai traditional medicine uses medicinal plants, Thai massage, herbal compresses and steam baths, eating fruits, stretching, meditation and having a healthy lifestyle.  Thai massage was popularized in the mid 1980s as a way for a more holistic approach to treating ails and in the 1990s to create more jobs.  Thai massages can help with “myofascial pain syndrome, frozen shoulder, carpel tunnel syndrome and tension headache.” (Chokevivat, 2005)  The masseuse uses there hands, feet, knees and elbows to manipulate the body into relaxation.  There are three different levels of massage that are used.  Level one involves massage for health and relaxation, which requires 150 hours of curriculum.  Level two involves massage for relieving symptoms, which requires 372 hours of curriculum.  Level three involves massage for therapeutic purposes, which requires 800 hours of curriculum.  Level two is typically the most popular for most massages, which includes muscle pain and headaches.  Thai massages are becoming more widespread and are popular in the United States.

In Thailand, they also use herbs in both cooking and in medicinal aspects of life.  This has been practiced for thousands of years, and is still being used today because they “are effective and safe, and have gentle actions on the body systems.” (Wellness in thailand, 2008)  Some of the herbs still used to this day include tumeric, piper betel, holy basil, and centella asiatica, which can be used to soothe various ailments, such as oral sores, ulcers, cuts, scrapes, and others to that nature.

Since the late 1800’s, Western medicine has been playing a large role in Thailand’s healthcare culture, with “Thailand spends[ing] about 130 million baht each year on drug imports.” (Ministry of public health, 2012)  This is due to how pupils of traditional medicine are taught, which is through oral transmission between the teachers and the pupils, in which the pupils would write down every word spoken and memorize the entire written doctrine.  With this being a difficult way of learning, King Rama III invited missionaries into the country, who happened to bring in the ideas of Western medicine.  This lead to the increase in the role of Western medicine in Thai culture, which then brought about the development of schools of medicine, which increased the amount of Western-trained physicians coming into the country to practice and teach to those who wanted to become doctors. (Sangsirinakagul et al., 2012)

While traditional medicine has lost its appeal to many people of Thailand, there is a push for increasing the incorporation of this lost art with Western medicine.  In the future, there is a hope that this can replace the need for various drugs, which may not even treat the actual problem.  Until then, people will have to go to shops and specialty stores to pay out of pocket for a more naturopathic remedy.


  1. Chokevivat, V. & Chuthaputti, A.  (2005).  The role of thai traditional medicine in health promotion.  Retrieved May 3, 2012 from
  2. Ministry of public health promotes thai traditional and alternative medicine in hospitals nationwide. (2012, March 29). The government public relations department. Retrieved May 5, 2012, from   
  3. Sangsirinakagul, C., Samanthai, S., & Wongprasertsuk, C. (n.d.). Development of medicine in thailand. Development of medicine in thailand. Retrieved May 5, 2012, from
  4. Wellness in thailand, asian herbs, thai herbs, tropical herbs, and asian medicinal plants. (2008). Wellness in thailand, traditional thai medicine, thai spa, thai herbs and thai massage. Retrieved May 5, 2012, from

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