Empacho: What is this Latino folk illness about?

saludifyBy Hope Gillette, Saludify

There are many and varied Latino folk illnesses, one of which is that of empacho, or the warning signs of gastrointestinal food blockage.

Empacho consists of a variety of symptoms including indigestion, vomiting, lack of appetite, diarrhea or constipation.

The University of Washington indicates these symptoms classically describe an intestinal blockage in Western medicine, and the diagnosis for this Latino folk illness is not far off the mark.

What is empacho?

People suffering from empacho are thought to have a bolus of undigested food somewhere in the intestinal tract, though the causes for this are not as in-line with modern medicine as the diagnosis itself.

In the Latino tradition, people with this malady have developed it because:

  • They swallowed gum.
  • They swallowed a lot of saliva.
  • They ate certain foods at the wrong time of day.
  • They were forced to eat.
  • They ate spoiled food.
  • They ate improperly prepared food.
  • They ate too much of a certain food.

In reality, the Mayo Clinic indicates this type of intestinal blockage is rarely caused by the ingestion of a food item or inedible item, but is rather caused by:

  • Intestinal adhesion
  • Hernias
  • Tumors
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases
  • Twisting of the intestines
  • Telescoping of the intestines
  • Cancer
  • Impacted feces
  • Diverticulitis
  • Scarring

Latinos who suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) stress after a meal are less likely to truly experience an intestinal blockage unless one of the above underlying conditions is present. Acute onset is likely just GI irritation, which can be easily confused with intestinal blockage due to similar symptoms.
Joe Terry, an emergency medical technician from Ohio, tells Saludify, “Symptoms of an irritated GI system are bloating, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea, which can cause sensations of pain, fullness or urgency to have a bowel movement.”

These warning signs can indicate anything from a stomach ulcer to stomach cancer; they do not necessarily mean an individual is suffering from what empacho implies—GI blockage.

What are the traditional treatments for empacho?

According to Rice Universityempacho is traditionally diagnosed by a healer who feels the stomach for tenderness and looks for knots in the calf muscles.

As with other Latino folk illnesses, if empacho is suspected, the healer confirms the condition by rolling a fresh chicken egg over the abdomen. If the egg appears to stick to any one particular area, that is where empacho is stemming from.

Remedies for empacho include:

  • Rose petal tea
  • Catnip or catmint tea
  • Wormwood tea
  • Chamomile tea
  • Special warm olive oil back massage

One of the most popular cultural cures for empacho is the administration of lead-based powders such as azarconor greta. These powders are popular for treating empacho in children and are readily available in most markets in Latin American countries like Mexico. Unfortunately, the administration of these powders is not advised because they expose individuals to potentially harmful levels of lead.

Modern treatment of intestinal blockage

“You should see a doctor if you are having severe stomach pain, vomiting, or abnormal bowel movements,” explained Terry.

Only through diagnostic imaging can the cause of an intestinal blockage be determined.

If the blockage is caused by partial impact, sometimes a low-fiber diet is the only needed treatment to help the system clear on its own.

Full impaction, however, often requires surgical intervention. Failure to seek the proper treatment can result in death or the need for emergency intervention.

This article was first published in Saludify.

Hope Gillette is an award winning author and novelist. She has been active in the veterinary industry for over 10 years, and her experience extends from exotic animal care to equine sports massage.

[Photo by Madilyn Peiper]

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