Folk medicine has existed side by side with human beings for thousands of years. In an effort to cope with an environment that was often dangerous, man began finding ways to treat medical problems.
At first, these came through trial and error, using various plants and other methods derived from observing how animals reacted to and treated themselves when ill or injured.
Over time, individuals became more skilled at helping the sick and injured. Medicine men, shamans and priests responsible for healing ceremonies, religious rituals and other rites, emerged and were charged with ensuring the safety and health of their communities.
Much of this lore has been passed down through families for generations, and some have even been adopted for use by the medical profession.
The use of Aloe Vera is such a product. Throughout ancient and modern history, aloe plants have been used for their remarkable medicinal properties. Isolated societies as far removed as the indigenous peoples of South Africa independently discovered the uses of aloes.
Interest in the healing properties of aloes was sparked in the late 1940s when aloes were successfully used in the treatment of Japanese radiation burn victims after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Twentieth century scientific literature contains many references to the aloe plant's diverse biological properties. Experiments have brought to light new aspects of this plant's versatility such as an anti-fungal effect, an inhibitory effect on cancer cells, an anti-inflammatory effect and an anti-aging effect.
But along with the folk medicines and practices that seem to work even in our heavily dependent synthetic drug world are some practices that leave more modern thinking individuals shaking their heads.
Among the illnesses that do not fall within the realm of recognized medicine is one called "liver grown." This is an illness found among the Pennsylvania Germans.
This illness, they believe, occurs when the liver has become attached to the ribs or some other part of the body cavity. It is more common among children and believed to be caused by exposure to a strong wind, the result of staying outside too long or from being shaken up while traveling.
Diagnosis is made by feeling the lower chest and to see if the flesh is pulled inward. Folk Treatment may involve stretching the child's arms and legs behind them to loosen the liver or by passing them through a warm horse collar, bramble bush or other similar process.
In common medical terms, this same disease is known as "failure to thrive."
Researchers note that these remedies are often learned and passed down from generation to generation.
Folk medicine practitioners use a variety of methods to treat illnesses. Each folk healer has specific treatments, which often include prayer, dancing, medicinal herbs, massage, sweat baths, coining (a process of rubbing the skin with a metal coin) and other practices outside the realm of modern medicine.
Nearly every family has some specific home remedy that has been learned and passed down by older family members, and even in the face of more modern health beliefs they will continue to use these folk remedies before seeking traditional medical treatment.
For instance, ginger is used to treat gas or nausea. Other examples of folk treatments include using ginseng as a tonic and celery seeds for rheumatism. And, in many instances the folk treatment relieves symptoms.
Many plants provided the basic ingredients that were used in the preparation of medicines and remedies by the backwoodsman. According to an article on Folk Medicine by Peggy Fisher, BSN, from West Virginia, there appeared to be a belief among the early settlers that the more distasteful a concoction was, the more effective it would be.
"Some of their remedies are still used today in patent medicines. Wild cherry bark for cough medicine is an example. Sassafras, catnip, horehound and pennyroyal were all brewed into teas and used to treat coughs and colds," according to Fisher.
Red cedar leaves and twigs were boiled and inhaled for bronchitis. Leaves and bark from black and white willow were made into a tea to break a fever. The willow has an abundance of salicylic acid (aspirin).
Golden seal, bloodroot and wild ginger were used in a variety of early concoctions. The pitch from the white pine could heal wounds. Blood flowing from a cut could be stopped with powdered bark of a hemlock tree and that tree bark could also be used to treat burns. Toothaches were treated with cooked pine needles and rhododendron oil could relieve rheumatism.
In addition to these historical practices, the spectrum of folk medicine in the United States has been extended by the influx of new immigrant groups.
While the Appalachian Mountain Range has strong pockets of people who believe in using folk remedies, so do sections of people from Louisiana's backwater areas. Indians from all tribes still use many herbal treatments.
Folk medicine exists side by side with modern medical practices. Those who use and believe in it have acquired much of their knowledge from generations of others who have used the treatments.
The traditions of folk medicine stress the importance of balance and harmony within the body. A sense that each person is connected to the earth and the cosmos is very important, as is the belief that an illness should be treated with every resource available.