Behold, the Mustard Plaster!

posted Jun 27, 2012, 2:56 PM by Joanna Wald
Let's talk home remedies, shall we?* Wait, that's too broad. Let's narrow it down and just talk about mustard as a home remedy. Mustard is tasty, and it's a great example of the pros and cons of time honored tradition in medicine.

Mustard has been used as a cure-all for thousands of years. According to the internet it was used by the ancient Greeks, and even today it hasn't entirely died out as a treatment for colds, bronchitis, asthma, arthritis, and sundry other aches and pains. Dang, if it's lasted that long, there must be something to it, right? Except . . . We already know that appeal to age is ared herring. I mean, we've been using wheels for thousands of years because they kick ass, we've been killing each other for thousands of years because we're assholes. So clearly, "we've always done it" isn't enough reason to keep doing it. 

It's supposed to work like this: you smash up some mustard seeds (usually black mustard, not to be confused with Indian mustard or white mustard**) and mix them with flour and water, or possibly eggwhite, and occasionally some other herbs or spices--it's one of those 'everyone has their own recipe' things--and spread it on some cloth. Then you put the cloth on your chest (for colds and lung troubles) or whatever body part hurts (for arthritis and aches. duh.). And it's supposed to make you feel better. Why? There are a couple of theories.

First, mustard plasters do tend to produce irritating fumes that might make your nose run and whatnot, which might clear up a stuffy head. Second, mustard is a rubefascient (ooh, vocabulary!)--it makes your skin red by dilating your capillaries wherever the plaster is sitting. Some people think the extra blood flow helps your body flush toxins. Or . . . all that irritation and redness gives you something new to think about, effectively distracting you from your original pain. This, by the way, is also the theory behind stuff like Ben Gay and Icy Hot.

Does it work? Nobody knows. When you look it up from the modern science angle you get a whole lot of 'not enough information' and 'not scientifically verified.'  Oh, and you also get a lot of side effect warnings. Remember the irritating fumes? In overly strong doses they feel like tear gas. And if you leave a mustard plaster on too long it'll cause blisters and burns. Oops. So . . . even if it was proven effective, you might want to choose something safer, ya know? Because yikes! Mustard burns look awful.

Which, by the way, is a point against the whole 'natural things are safer' idea. But there was a shining, crazy moment (okay, the 19th century is more than a moment) where this stuff was held up as cutting edge medicine, right along with bloodletting and induced vomiting. Back then, college educated doctors didn't have much more science in their heads than your grandma, and these remedies clearly did something, and for a while there it seemed vitally important that a treatment make something happen, whether or not that something was actually helpful or not.

Sorry, that was a bit off topic; I'm just fascinated by that whole era of heroic medicine. It was usually the opposite of helpful, but it was so impressively unhelpful that people flocked to the doctors who specialized in these treatments. And I now realize that I do have a point to this--alternative medicine works like that--it's usually unhelpful, but it's unhelpful in a way that makes you feel good about yourself, so it's become big business. But back in the heroic medicine days, Heroic mustard plasters were competing against equally unhelpful home-made mustard plasters, and today Herbalist mustard plasters are competing against antibiotics and Tylenol and a host of other scientifically verified remedies. It's just no contest. Or it shouldn't be, anyway. Definitely not with mustard. It's still delicious on a sandwich, though.

*This is strep-related only in the vaguest way. I actually feel much better now (Yay!). But I promise to take my antibiotics until they're all gone.

**I know, right? I always thought mustard came in Dijon, Deli, and yellow.