For most women, aches and pains are a big feature of pregnancy.
You’re probably becoming familiar with terms like sciatica, round ligament pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, symphysis pubis dysfunction … the list goes on.
Hormonal changes mean these aches and pains are normal and they’re likely to happen for most women at some point.
Which makes it likely you’re looking for safe and natural ways to treat these muscles aches.
For muscle aches and pains, Tiger Balm is a well known herbal preparation which pregnant women may want to try.
But is Tiger Balm safe to use during pregnancy?
What is Tiger Balm?
Tiger Balm actually dates back to the 1870s.
Aw Chu Kin, a Chinese herbalist who worked in the Emperor’s court, left China and opened up a small shop. It was there where he made and sold his special ointment, which was effective in relieving all kinds of aches and pains.
The rest was history! Today, over 60 million units of Tiger Balm products are sold annually.
What’s Tiger Balm used for?
Here are just some of the conditions Tiger Balm might offer relief:
- Back pain
- Common colds, congestion, flu symtoms
- Toenail fungus
- Tension headaches
- Neck and shoulder pain
- Joint and muscle pain
- Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis pain
- Stretch marks
- Insect bites
- Poor circulation
What’s in Tiger Balm?
The ingredients in Tiger Balm are plant extracts and mixed into a base of paraffin oil.
The active ingredients in Tiger Balm include:
- Camphor: comes from the Cinnamomum camphora plant. It creates warm and cold sensations in the skin and increases blood flow in skin and muscle
- Menthol: comes from peppermint and spearmint plants. It’s often used to create cooling sensations and also restrict spasm of muscles, reducing pain
- Cajuput oil: comes from a tree in the Myrtle family. It’s used for relieving toothache and headache
- Cassia oil: extracted from the back of the Cinnamomum cassia plant. Studies point to it having anti-inflammatory action
- Demetholized mint oil: comes from a peppermint plant and has been used as a topical treatment for pain
- Clove oil: extracted from the flower buds of clove trees. The active ingredient eugenol is a natural anesthetic. It’s been shown to provide pain relief from toothaches.
What does Tiger Balm actually do?
So, how does Tiger Balm actually work?
When you apply Tiger Balm to your skin, you’ll notice both a heating and cooling effect on the skin. This heating and cooling effect is designed to play a trick on your nerves … kind of like a distraction from the pain.
Most evidence for the effects of Tiger Balm is based on what researchers know about its active ingredients.
Is Tiger Balm safe to use during pregnancy?
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research to say if it’s safe to use Tiger Balm during pregnancy. Without this solid evidence, most companies will err on the side of caution and suggest either to not use when pregnant or breastfeeding, or seek medical advice first.
But traditionally, very few topical (on the skin) products pose concerns during pregnancy, and even less so when breastfeeding.
Rodney Whyte, Pharmacist in Charge of Monash Medicines Information, says:
“Topically there are very few products which pose problems in pregnancy and breastfeeding … When used appropriately, these things are widely used and safe and efficacious – safer than a pain killer in terms of overall risk.”
The two main active ingredients in Tiger Balm, camphor and menthol, can be harmful if swallowed and ingested.
Clove oil is another essential oil that should never be ingested during pregnancy. Ingested in large doses, it can stimulate contractions and lead to premature labour.
Inhaling tiger balm during pregnancy
During pregnancy, your blood volume increases substantially. This can lead to a feeling of congestion in the sinuses. Add in the common cold and you might find yourself struggling to breathe freely, especially at night.
Inhaling Tiger Balm is unlikely to do any harm. However, it’s important the cream or gel doesn’t come in contact with mucus membranes such as nose or mouth.
Can I use balm for back pain during pregnancy?
As your baby and uterus stretch and grow, your ligaments and joints can really start to ache. Simple movements might feel much harder and after a day on your feet, everything hurts!
Using a muscle rub or balm on your back for pain during pregnancy is a simple and effective way to relieve aches and pains. Rodney Whyte, Pharmacist in Charge Monash Medicines Information, says:
“Can’t go far wrong using Tiger Balm, especially short term. Long term may cause accumulation issues.”
So the message is clear: if you have pain in your back during pregnancy, short term use of Tiger Balm poses little risk.
Long term, it’s better to see a body therapist who specialises in pregnancy. Often an osteopathic adjustment or massage can help relieve tension and pain and you don’t need to be concerned if Tiger Balm is safe to use during pregnancy.
Can you use Tiger Balm for headaches when pregnant?
Headaches are quite literally a pain to suffer through, and happen for a number of reasons during pregnancy.
If your headache is related to muscle tension, Tiger Balm is safe for use during pregnancy. But as per the advice above, you want to avoid using it long term.
Seek the advice of a therapist who can help you find relief in other ways. Yoga, exercise and regular massage can help ease muscle tension.
Most headaches during pregnancy are primary headaches. This means the headache pain happens by itself, without any known cause. It might be a better choice to use the lowest dose of paracetamol for a headache in this situation.
Is camphor safe during pregnancy?
Applying camphor on the skin (topically) is very different to ingesting camphor. When ingested orally, camphor can cross the human placenta. In one study, researchers found there was no increase in birth defects or any adverse effects if camphor was used topically. In the study mentioned previously, the researchers note:
“Although some active ingredients in [the product] are relatively toxins when used orally at high doses, these doses are thousands of times larger than those available systemically after topical use at the recommended maximum dose (i.e. 10 g/day). Thus, this review provides evidence that, when used as indicated, [the product] is apparently safe for pregnant women and their unborn babies as well as for lactating women.”
Is menthol rub safe during pregnancy?
Menthol is another key ingredient in Tiger Balm… so is menthol safe during pregnancy?
Again, there is no scientific literature about the reproductive safety of menthol.
However, methanol has been approved by the FDA as a safe chemical for external use, for concentrations up to 16%.
This means using Tiger Balm for your aching back or headache is fine as long as you apply it to your skin only.
Tiger Balm side effects
Although many people tolerate Tiger Balm quite well, it’s important to be aware of the following Tiger Balm side effects:
- Severe burning, stinging, or irritation after use
- Breathing problems after use on the chest or throat.
If you experience the above side effects, stop using Tiger Balm and seek medical advice.
Signs of an allergic reaction include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat.
If you experience an allergic reaction, seek medical attention immediately.
Tiger Balm warnings
There are different types of the Tiger Balm products so choose the one most appropriate for your needs and avoid extra strength in case it proves to cause an irritation or severe side effect.
Never take Tiger Balm orally. You should avoid applying the product to irritated, chapped or sunburned skin as the menthol can cause irritation.
Don’t use Tiger Balm in your eyes, mouth or any open wounds.
Alternatives to Tiger Balm during pregnancy
If you’re not quite sure about using Tiger Balm During Pregnancy, you might like to try alternatives.
For muscular aches and pains, try a nice relaxing Epsom salts bath. Magnesium is essential to help with things like restless legs syndrome. If you need pain relief, check out Pain Medication During Pregnancy to find out what your options are.