Thai Traditional Medicine

Posted on October 15, 2012


Thai Traditional Medicine

The Kingdom of Thailand has its own system of traditional medicine called “Thai Traditional Medicine” (TTM). It originated during the Sukhothai period (1238-1377) and developed in parallel with the country as a means of national health care until the early 20th century. The spread of modern medicine from the Western world to the East then led to a decline in the practice of traditional medicine in Thailand. As a result, modern medicine eventually replaced TTM and became Thailand’s mainstream health-care system while TTM was neglected for over 60 years until the revival of TTM began in the late 1970s.

What is Thai Traditional Medicine?
According to the Protection and Promotion of Thai Traditional Medicine Wisdom Act B.E. 2542 (1999), 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.”

In other words, TTM is regarded as comprising the traditional philosophies, bodies of knowledge and modes of practice to care for the health of Thai people that are congruent with Thai culture and way of life, and based on the principles of Buddhism. TTM uses various forms of practices to complement each other, i.e., medicine, pharmacy, massage, midwifery and maternal and child health care, Buddhist rites and meditation, as well as other rituals based on the belief in supernatural power or power of the universe. TTM is a holistic and natural approach of health care that is derived from Buddhist beliefs, the observation of and respect for nature, and the wisdom of Thai ancestors. In addition, traditional knowledge of TTM was also built through the processes of “selection”, “adoption”, “adaptation” and “utilization” of traditional medicine of some countries with which Thailand had contact in the past, e.g., India and China, to suit the Thai way of life.

The Four Elements of the Body
According to TTM, the human body is composed of four elements i.e., earth, water, wind and fire. When the four elements of the body are in equilibrium, it will be healthy. In contrast, if an imbalance in these elements occurs, i.e., if there is a deficit, an excess, or disability in any of the four elements, a person will become ill.

Thai Traditional

Moreover, the imbalance in the four internal elements and illness can also be due to an imbalance in the four external elements as well. According to TTM, for each person there will be one
element that is more dominant than others, one’s own dominant element is called “tard-chao-ruan”, which is basically determined by the date and month of one’s conception. The tard-chao-ruan of a person plays an important role with regard to one’s characteristics and appearance as well as the weak point in one’s health.

According to TTM , the human body is composed of four elements (‘tard’ in the Th ai language), i.e., earth, water, wind and fire.

According to TTM, human illness can be caused by the following factors:

1. Supernatural power, e.g., ancestor’s soul, powerful spirits of the forest, evil spirits, punishment from a heavenly spirit of those who misbehave.
2. Power of nature, e.g., imbalance in the four elements of the body, imbalance of heat and cold, and imbalance of the body’s equilibrium.
3. Power of the universe, e.g., positive and negative influences from the sun, the moon and the stars on human health.
4. Kimijati, which may be considered the equivalent of microorganisms or parasites in modern medicine.

Thai traditional

Moreover, according to TTM, human health is also influenced by: 1) The elements (tard). As mentioned previously, an imbalance in the four basic elements of the body and the effect of external elements or the environment can affect human health. 2) The seasons. Heat and cold during different seasons clearly affects human health. 3) Age. Based on TTM, during different periods of life, people are more prone to get ill from the influence of different elements. 4) Geography. As the geographic location of where one life dictates the weather and the environment, it can play a role in
affecting one’s health. 5) Time. Astrologically, the sun, the moon and the stars continuously move, thereby influencing human life and health differently during different times of the day.

Inappropriate behaviors that can be the causes of ailments according to TTM include: incorrect eating habits, e.g., eating too much or too little, eating food that has gone bad, or unfamiliar food, or food that is not suitable for one’s own dominant element or diseases. Imbalanced postures while sitting, standing, walking, or sleeping can lead to disequilibrium of the body structure and needless worsening of health. Exposure to extreme weather or polluted air. Being deprived of food, water or sleep. Delayed urination or defecation. Overwork, over-exercise, or excessive sexual activity. Deep sorrow or extreme exhilaration. Extreme anger, lack of equanimity. Excessive sexual activity doesn’t seem like a bad way to get sick though!

Treatment emphasizes adjusting the balance of the body elements using the health promotion approach.

Thai Traditional

Examination and Diagnostic Procedures of TTM

Getting a patient’s history and chief complaint is the first step to healing. In addition to asking about a patient’s history, symptoms, chief complaints and usual behaviors or habits, TTM practitioners need to know a patient’s date, time, month and year of birth in order to figure out the patient’s tard-chao-ruan and determine which element is causing the imbalance and illness. The second step in the examination process is physical examinations, e.g., heart rate, pulse, temperature, visual and manual examination of affected organs or areas of the body, structure of the body, degree of  movement of joints and the extremities. Since each element of the body controls different organs or systems of the body, TTM practitioners can diagnose what is wrong with a patient’s tard from the patient’s symptoms, chief complaint and physical examination. As well, some TTM practitioners may also perform astrological examination of patients to determine if their illnesses are the result of
stars, a supernatural power or bad karma. If so, a form of rites is usually performed to psychologically boost the patient’s morale.


TTM is considered a holistic form of medicine. Treatment emphasizes adjusting the balance of the body elements using the health promotion approach. Naturally determined factors, e.g., tard-chao-ruan, seasons, external elements and the power of the universe, are also considered in order to give appropriate treatments. Treatments prescribed for patients can be herbal medicine preparations, Thai traditional massage, hot herbal compresses, or herbal steam baths. In addition, the TTM health promotion approach may be used to achieve good health, which is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, by correcting the inappropriate, unhealthy behaviors mentioned above.

Some of the above practices and beliefs are surely up for debate, and many may find TTM or any form of alternative medicine to be a complete farce. How can the alignment of Mars and Pluto cause you to have back pain? But it is easy to forget that, not so long ago, everyone believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and that the world was flat. Maybe approaching TTM with an open mind is the best practice. After all, what can it hurt, and if some people believe in it and they truly feel it helps them, all the better.

Posted in: Thailand