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The Painful Lowdown On Camphor



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If I had my way, our family would never move again. I hate packing. I hate carrying heavy boxes up and downstairs. And I definitely hate trying to wrangle large appliances through small doors.

Chances are good, though, we will be moving again within a year.

I envy those who can afford a professional mover—just sit back drinking sweet tea, while someone else does the work—but I can’t do that. So I work like a dog until the last box is unloaded, then I start feeling the impact; it usually begins in my lower back and arms. That is when I start looking for an ointment to temper the aches and soothe my overworked muscles.

I didn’t know what was in it

The last time we moved (a year or so ago), I came up with the bright idea of putting the liniment on before the pain set in. Seemed like a plan to me—but it caused my 11-year-old son to wrinkle up his nose and plead, “What’s that smell, Dad?”

“Do you remember the last time we moved, Son?” I shot back—trying to teach the boy an early lesson in what it’s like to get older. “I got so stove-up afterward that I could hardly walk. This stuff will keep that from happening again—well, at least I hope it will.”

“Yeah, but what’s in it? What’s that smell?”

He had me on that one. I didn’t know. And I hate it when I don’t know something, so I headed back upstairs to find out. Looking at the label, I identified the primary active ingredient in the fragrant concoction: It was camphor.

An ancient remedy, but what is it?

I knew my boy wouldn’t settle for just a name, he was going to require more information. Zeb always requires more information. And, once I started thinking about it, I wanted to find out more about camphor too.

After all, anything rubbed on your skin can potentially get absorbed into your circulatory system. I care about what I eat—shouldn’t I use some discretion when it comes to smearing my body with a  potent liniment?

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, it didn’t take long to get the lowdown on camphor. Are you in for a little journey? Here are the facts on the stuff that makes you feel better when you’ve overdone it:

  • Camphor comes from a tree—the camphor tree of course. It is an evergreen native to Asia. The oil is derived from the leaves.
  • In the East, camphor is used in candy and as a flavoring in drinks. Be careful with that, though. Too much camphor can be harmful. It should be taken internally only under the advice of a physician.
  • Camphor has been used since ancient times. It is mentioned in both the Quran and the Bible.
  • Hindus burn camphor in a religious ceremony. They say camphor is like “pure consciousness.” It burns clean and leaves no residue.
  • Other uses for camphor include making fireworks burn better, cleaning bodies for embalming, repelling insects, and treating maladies of the respiratory tract (when used as an inhalant).
  • In China, camphor is known as Zhang Nao and is popular in herbal medicines, especially to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Industrially, camphor has been used in soaps, cleaners, and disinfectants.

I was glad to find out camphor comes from nature

Far too often, we turn to synthetics developed in a laboratory and ignore the value of natural substances that have proven effective for generations. I like it when I discover products still fueled by natural ingredients.

Once I made the connection between the characteristic smell of camphor and its uses, I realized that every effective muscle rub I know of relies on the oil pressed from camphor leaves.

And, my boy—he decided the smell of camphor isn’t so bad after all. He even offered some to his sister.

Of course, the best course of action is to avoid over-doing it in the first place—but there are times when a strenuous job needs to be done and it has your name on it.

One last thing: Applying the salve early on, instead of waiting for the pain to set in, was a good idea. I’m almost looking forward to the next move.