Lately Suegra has been suffering from “empacho” … This illness has always confused me – And Suegra is equally confused as to how it’s possible that gringos have never even heard of it.

“Empacho” is a gastrointestinal illness that many people in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America believe can kill you. I decided to interview her about it for anthropological reasons because it doesn’t seem well documented.

Interview below, (in Spanish.)

Note: The use of the word “chibolitas” in Salvadoran Caliche means “little round objects” or “little balls.” (The word has other meanings in other parts of Latin America.)

(If interested in a translation to English, let me know in comments and I’ll see about transcribing it.)


  1. If I swallowed my chewing gum I was guaranteed to get a major rub down. My grama used to rub my legs with mayonnaise to heal me of empacho. That was painful (in a good way) — I actually enjoyed the deep tissue massage. LOL!

  2. My Cuban grandmother had the biggest, strongest mitts you ever have seen and believe me, you did everything you could to avoid getting the sobado to relieve the alleged empacho!

    Thank you, Suegra!

    We really are a crazy ass culture…



      • LOL – I’m sure gringos do equally weird things? … We need a “Gringa-ish” blog where maybe a Latina marries into an Anglo family and blogs about all the crazy weird cultural stuff she encounters… Or maybe Carlos needs a blog ;)

  3. Where do I start…. “Chibolitas” in your arms, back of legs and stomach? What???
    Ese “brevaje” que disque te cura, más parece ser lo que toman las personas después de una severenda “siringanda” (noche de copa una noche loca).
    Estoy a años luz de ser doctora, pero eso suena a Heartburn. Prilosec to the rescue!
    En cuanto a la sobadita… a quien no le gusta una buena sobadita ;)

    • I should pretend I have empacho for a free massage, no? ;)

      So even though you were born and raised in El Salvador, no crees en el empacho? – Did anyone in your family believe in it?

      • I believe it exists… Empacho es el nombre común, popular! Pero eso de que la gente se muera de eso…. nope! Creo que es un diagnóstico equivocado. El caso que ella menciona más creo que fue un ataque del corazón. Muchas veces un simple heartburn tiene unos síntomas muy parecidos a un ataque.
        Lo de las chibolitas… ahi si me pierdo.

  4. Interesting…I do remember my family talking about “empacho” but I never knew exactly what it really was. Suegra does a really good job at describing the symptoms. She would be a good spokesperson for this condition (seriously). I do wonder, however, what would be the equivalent of this condition in the formal medical system, if there is one.

    You know, in psychiatry, there are a bunch of conditions that are “culturally-bound” — that is, we only see them among Hispanics and other cultural groups. The reality of this and the prevalence was so strong, that DSM-IV, the diagnostic bible in psychiatry, added these conditions to their list.

    Do not underestimate the power of culture…

    Thanks for sharing Tracy (and please give Suegra my thanks for a very well-done interview…she sounds very sweet)

    • I also wonder what the equivalent condition would be… It can’t be simply indigestion. The “balls” in the arms, etc. is very unique. She made me touch her arms and asked if I could feel them. I didn’t feel anything but she was certain she had “balls” there.

      I will pass on your words to Suegra!

  5. Wow! Escuchar a Suegra was actually very nice Traaaysi, gracias!

    In México, el “empacho”, is pretty common as well. But here, we don´t get la sobadita, we get pinched! My mom or mi Abuelita would make you lie down, bare back and pinch all your back to get the “pellejos” unstuck. Supposedly with el empacho your inner muscles (or skin?) get stuck to your bones (or something like that) and blood can´t flow correctly to help you heal. So someone had to help with that.

    Another way of dealing with empacho, in ancient times, was using ventosas (cupping?), and I´ve just recently learned that it is also a common practice in Chinese Medicine! It hurts like hell! But it really helps. :)

    I think it has to do with helping the lymphatic system; maybe las “chibolitas” that Suegra talks about are just lumps made up of toxins and the lymph nodes can´t get rid of because it´s too much. No?

    I looove traditional medicine!
    Gracias Amiga! And tell Suegra she has a very clear voice!
    Hope no one gets empachada any time soon. ;)

    • Sue, that reminds me of the Asian tradition of cupping. They light a candle on your back and then put a cup over it. It leaves burn marks and several families have gotten in trouble with authorities for doing it to kids. Teachers thought it was “abuse.”


      • I spent a couple years immersed in the Korean community and witnessed cupping sessions several times.

        It’s funny that this has been brought up, because though I’ve been unable to accept “empacho” as a real condition, I put faith in Asian medicine. My Master (Tae Kwon Do teacher), taught me a technique called “moxibustion” that uses these little mugwort incense cones on small metal circles. You light them and place them on the skin, (and they DO burn if you aren’t careful!) … I still use this when my knee goes out, (ACL injury) – and Carlos has witnessed me use it and became convinced of its healing power so much so that he asks me to use it on him for back pain.

      • Si Carrie! Tal cual! It is cupping, it hurts, but it also really works! I have my Mexican “bruja/masajista” who cures me from any maladies with all these ancient remedies.

        And Tracy, actually it was with moxibustion that I was cured from an apendicitis! True story. I was on my way to the hospital, but my doctor (PhD and all, and also a homeopath) tried it for 10 minutes before going into the OR. All the tests proved I had apendicitis, but did not need the surgery. My apendix got unswollen (is that how you say it? desinflamado?) and voila, all was well in my world again.

        I love traditional remedies!

    • She liked doing this interview. LOL. I could tell she was really trying to use professional sounding words and speak clearly, (I only counted 1 Caliche word!)

      Never heard of the pinching method. I will have to tell Suegra about that… I will also be sure to pass on your compliment to her. Gracias!

  6. Oh wow! This explanation is exactly what we grew up with, minus the mexicanismos of course, lol! Too bad you didn’t record Suegra’s image on this video…that would have been awesome! Love it :-)

    • No, no image. I have to protect her identity to some degree. She’s a part of my life and lives in my house, so as you know, she’s become a big part of the stories I tell on my blog — but, (unlike the audio interview), being part of my blog is something she never willingly signed up for. So, respecting her privacy, I try to keep her anonymous.

  7. Loved the interview! Great questions…I thought you caught her with, “Do you know anyone who’s died from it?” But she came up with a quick answer.

    Did she know you’d be posting it here? Does she even know you have a blog?


    • Susan, I thought I caught her too, but she recovered just barely ;)

      She doesn’t really understand the concept of a blog, (and I don’t want her to! LOL.) … I told her I would be putting the interview on the internet as part of my “trabajo” – so that others could learn about empacho since it isn’t well documented. She knows I’m a writer but she can’t totally comprehend how that works online. When I was finally able to show her when I got published in print, with the actual magazine in my hands, she accepted it a little better.

      But yes, as you heard at the beginning of the interview, she granted me permission and I had no ulterior motive with this – I just thought it would be interesting and educational, (and Suegra did it because she likes when I show interest in things she knows about. She’s very sociable and likes to talk.) – And a coincidental bonus is that you get to hear her speak :)

  8. My Goodness! I have heard of this empacho growing up my whole life! Sepa Dios como se sentira! All I know is that I have never experienced it myself! My family is from El Salvador and my uncle married a lady from Guatemala, they also believe in el empacho. Para no hacer la historia larga she went to Guatemala le dio empacho y dejo a mi tio viudo! Since then I don’t say I believe but I dont say I do either :s lol

    • Wow – I’m sorry for your tío. I would be more careful about saying “I don’t believe,” if I knew someone too.

  9. Ok, so I will give you my honest feedback here, so sorry ahead of time. I first read the post, no listening on my phone, and thought, “Oh, how nice, this is going to be a nice topic to learn from, maybe I can google it and help with the corresponding illness that we could relate it to.” Then, I listened. I even took notes (never heard of las pantorillas, but i get it). Even wrote down the cure, though the first ingredient was beer, lol. But when you asked her if there was any other remedy, and received an instant “No, es la UNICA forma”, I was immediately transported to my Suegra’s dining room table, where all our important conversations/discussions/arguments take place, and I was shutting down. I hate to say that. I hate to admit that I started to discount everything you’re seemingly nice mother-in-law had said. I hate that I can’t stay open and believing. I have lost that ability. I used to have it. I do respect that she believes whole heartedly what she is saying. That this is something an entire country/countries believe in, and who am I to discount it. But I do. Maybe it’s my “American” attitude, that somehow we, as educated American’s know more, understand more, are able to deduce within minutes what is or is not plausible. Maybe it’s my doubtful nature, that needs “proof” for everything, and even then will question it. But I think it has more to do with my personal experiences with MY Suegra. I could have predicted word for word the last part about if she had actually KNOWN anyone that had died from it “Pues…….lo conozco alquien….” Mmmhmm.

    Sounds like I have some work to do on my issues, huh? Lol. Thanks for letting me be truthful.

    • Humincat – No need to apologize! I don’t believe in “el empacho” either. Maybe I would had I been raised with the belief, but the fact that I’ve lived my entire gringa life and never suffered from it, nor known anyone to suffer from it, makes it very difficult to accept.

      I respect those that believe in it – and honestly a good massage cures a lot of things – so no harm done. If it’s just indigestion or a figment of the imagination – massage is good for your body. As for the beer concoction, I don’t think that hurts anything either.

      There are things I believe in that Suegra doesn’t believe. The fact that raw meat carries germs which can contaminate counter-tops and other food thus making the family sick, seems completely implausible to her. She can’t see the germs and says she’s never gotten sick from cross contaminating, so she doesn’t believe me. (And maybe she has gotten food poisoning but didn’t make the connection — or maybe she has built up immunity to certain bacterias that Americans can’t build up since we overdue it with sanitizing everything.)

      The last question I asked her did make me smile a bit – she wanted so badly to tell me she did know someone so that she could convince me, but I appreciate that she was honest.

      Anyhow, this is what culture is all about. If we all had the same traditions and beliefs, this world would be quite boring.

      By the way, “pantorrillas” means calves (leg muscles)… Not sure if that’s a Salvadoran word or “normal” Spanish. LOL.

      • I instantly thougth “lower leg” so WOOHOO! for me once again figuring out a word in Spanish that I didn’t think I knew. There is always one or two words per Spanish post that I ‘guess’ at, so maybe I’ll start putting them down, along with my guess.

      • I am a gringa married to a Mexican and lived in the Hispanic community in West Texas for 20 years. My oldest son became very sick.. Empachado from eating too much pop corn. My husband rubbed his stomach, massaged his arms and legs and popped the skin on his back and he was healed. My husband has also done this to me with successful results.. I thoroughly believe in empachos and the treatment for the cure..

  10. As a child in Cuba (68 years ago) we also had empachos,for the cure a lady would come to the house use some kind of oil & with her fingers she press hard in the middle of your stomach & when it was all over she’ll burp gave some concoction to drink & your were cure, is amazing we survive without having an appendicitis attack.

    • Thanks for sharing, Abuela. Pushing on the stomach sounds less comfortable than arm and leg massage!

      I appreciate your contribution to the conversation. Thanks for commenting!

  11. Happy to meet you! Followed you over from your kind comment at tikitiki blog.

    I am so excited about all the latinas/gringa latinas I’m meeting.

    A pleasure.

    Going to go over your archives now!

  12. Wow! It was cool to hear the suegra! You know, this is very new to me. Never ever heard of empacho! I don’t think it’s common in Venezuela or I’ve heard about that same type of enfermedad. Que raro me pareció!

    • Interesting. I want to create a map to see where empacho is well-known and where it isn’t in Latin America.

  13. I’m originally from Guatemala and I also grew up knowing about empachos. If my mom believed I was afflicted by this, she would bring a woman who was a local healer and have my stomach massaged. She would also do my arms as well. But from what I was told, it wasn’t just a made up malady as some here suggest. My mom would say that if for some reason some piece of peel from a fruit or vegetable or even just any food that wasn’t properly digested got “stuck” in my intestinal track, then this would cause an empacho. It can give you stomach ache after you eat because your digestive system is working so hard and not accomplishing removing all the waste in your system. So I believe in it. My daughter, who’s 6, recently started experiencing discomfort after eating. It wouldn’t occur every time, mostly after the first meal of the day. Her stomach would become slightly distended and she had gas. It immediately made me think of an empacho. By the way, it’s not just a rub down that you need, you also need to ingest an oily substance that will lubricate and cleanse the intestinal tract.

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation! There doesn’t seem to be much information on “empacho” on the internet, so I’m glad you could give us some more tips.

      I’ve personally never experienced it, but like I said, my Suegra takes it very seriously.

      • It is the most horrible thing u can go through. Im going through it right now. My mom passed away and grandmother so i dont really remeber what to do. Im going to take a spoonful of olive oil and have my daughter massage my stomach arms legs and try to pull my back. I hope this works. I went to the massager he massaged me but he didnt massage legs or arms or pull back so i dont think he did it right cuz im in so much pain

      • Do you believe that you have empacho? Can you understand the directions my suegra gave in the video?

        Have you tried changing your diet or visiting a holistic doctor?

        Sorry – wish I could be of more help!

  14. I stumbled upon your blog while googling sites with salvadoreñismos and now I cannot stop visiting every opportunity I have. I grew up on El Salvador and even-though my mother was an educated woman, she still held (and does) to those ancient traditions, That is why we were cured of empachos by having the “sobadora” come and work her stuff and tell her to give us also the traditional “purga”. When my youngest cousin was 6 months old he came down with an empacho and his dad, a very respected doctor, couldn’t cured him with antibiotics and energy drinks, my mom and aunts convinced him to take the baby to the curandera and treat his empacho. My uncle became a believer after his son was cured in the third session.
    There are many things that our parents and their parents held as medicine and it worked fine, and there are things that they just figured out in their daily life, I remember my grandmother telling me to cover my head if I got it wet after dusk, or “el sereno” was going to make sick; I also remember, and I passed down to my daughters as a true and tested fact, not to drink milk or eat dary products and then lemon or orange juice or that will give them “churria”.
    La Suegra is a well of knowledge passed down generation after generation.

    • Amalthea – I agree that this is useful information and I was pleased that she allowed me to tape her talking about this. I hope it’s valuable to someone out there.

      The interesting thing is that you mentioned not drinking orange juice after milk — My husband Carlos will get sick with diarrhea if he does this, (even drinking water after having a dairy product can do that to him) – but I have never had this happen. It would be easy for me to say it’s silly or not true since in my experience it isn’t – but I’ve seen it happen to Carlos enough times that I know it’s true for some people.

      This is why, even though I admit that I find the “empacho” thing kind of strange since I haven’t personally experienced it, I don’t discount that to many people it is real.

      Thanks so much for reading my blog and for leaving this comment. I hope you’ll join in the conversation more often! Saludos!

  15. my one year old daughter i think shes empachada she has her stomach real bloaded and she has been having diareea for three days what should i do?

    • Edna – please take her to the doctor. Diarrhea can cause dehydration which is very dangerous, especially for a baby that young!

  16. I have been to several drs and every dr has said i dont have nothing wrong with me. I have excessive has and stomach hurts so bad. I even had the scope done and it came out negative. I went to a man that massages for empacho, he told me i am really bad. Heassaged me once but im going back to him again. I was like this before back in 1998 after giving birth to son. I was so miserrable. Woman that massaged me then said i was close to dying. I felt so weak and no food going down. She massaged me 4x and it went away. So i know riggt now im going through same thing. I hope ill get better since i cant take this discomfort any more

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Regina. I really hope you’re feeling better soon. It’s frustrating and scary to be sick with something no one can clearly identify or cure.

  17. Of course Empacho exists. It is a word that is used to describe the symptoms of Belching, Bloating or fullness, Constipation, Heartburn and/or stomachache (you can take one or two of these symptoms) but need to have more than 2 together. Then is called Empacho.
    Here it would be called Indigestion and Constipation.
    There they give you some natural brew or mix of something to make you go and massage your bowels to accelerate the process and pray over you while moving dramatically. Here they prescribe drugs, poison you a little and make you spend a lot of $$$. IF you are constipated and the bowel is dry to the point were the person is already vomiting and has a blockage. They can die without medical attention.
    Most of the natural medicine practiced in our countries from an anthropological point of view, may be old medical treatments practiced by the towns doctors back in the day. And these old ladies applied the concept to their customs and beliefs but discounting them as lies. Is completely inaccurate.

  18. I loved reading your article and comments. My family is from southTexas and my grandmother would use these techniques all the time. I was curious — has anyone experienced after swallowing gum your grandmother pressing on a certain spot on your back (usually only one spot) and the gum popping out of your mouth? I would love to know if anyome else knows how she did this. No one in my family seems to know.

  19. When I was 13, we visited E.S and made friends with a woman who claimed she knew how to sobar for empacho. She massaged the whole family, including me, and it hurt! She did the pinching on my back and arms and made me feel las chibolitas in my arms. But I doubted I had anything wrong or that she knew what she was talking about. Many years later, I met Taiwanese friends who do that cupping thing and I remembered our sobadora thinking maybe empacho is real after all. My parents also use the word to mean when someone is so sick of eating a type of food that they feel nauseous just thinking about it. For eg. I’m empachada of chilate and nuegados– I’ve eaten them once in my life and hated the sweetness of the nuegados so much that the flavor and smell is imprinted in mind to this day as la cosa mas asquerosa! There’s no explanation for it so they tell me I’m just empachada, haha. My dad is empachado of zucchini, he thinks it’s evil and blames it for numerous ailments. When we lived in México we were so poor, my mom could afford to buy zucchini only, thus my dad’s empacho!

    • Interesting. I haven’t heard empacho used in that way, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. In English you’d say you’ve developed an aversion for a food. (I developed a few because of things that made me especially nauseous during pregnancy.)

      There’s a scientific reason why people (and animals) develop an aversion. It protects us from eating toxic, dangerous things. Our brain remembers the food made us unwell, so it tells us to avoid it by making us disgusted.

      You can read more about it by Googling “Conditioned taste aversion.”

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