Hawaiian Traditional Medicine

December 9, 2010, 9:49 AM HST
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Hawaii medical experts existed long before Western medicine began to make an appearance on the islands. Before modern medicine became the treatment option of choice, many Hawaiians relied on ancient forms of Hawaiian healthcare to keep them healthy and strong. Although the Western influence is now strong throughout the islands, the ancient traditions can still be found in some modern medical practices. We have a brief overview on Hawaiian traditional medicine, including some of the treatment options still available on the islands today.

Introducing the Kahuna

The Kahuna was an ancient medical practitioner, who might work as a general practitioner (Kahuna La’au Lapa’au) or as a specialist. Some of the ancient Hawaiian medical specialists included:

  • Kahuna hoohanau keiki – a doctor who delivered babies
  • Kahuna hoohapai keiki – a doctor who induced pregnancy
  • Kahuna paaoao – a doctor who treated babies for illness
  • Kahuna haihai iwi – doctors who specialized in setting broken bones
  • Kahuna lomilomi – physical therapists who also specialized in massage

To become one of these kahunas, students would begin study in an apprenticeship program with an experienced doctor for many years before establishing practices of their own. Training facilities were also located in special healing temples, known as heiau. Some areas of the islands were also well known for their healing abilities, such as Hilo on the Big Island, where therapeutic spring waters were abundant.

The Mind-Body-Spirit Connection


Because Hawaiians believed that the mind, body and spirit were all interconnected, they did not think you could heal one without healing the other. Kahunas were also trained in spiritual prayers, which they used to cleanse the mind and heart of negative feelings and attitudes. Some of these techniques are still incorporated into Hawaii health centers today, as prayers and other spiritual rituals are combined with Western medicine in hopes of achieving best results. Some of the spiritual treatments offered today include:

  • Hooponopono – Traditional Hawaiian problem solving technique used by families
  • Lomilomi – Spiritual and physical muscle relaxation practiced by licensed therapists
  • Laau Kahea – Healing through prayers and chants, also known as exorcism

In addition to the spiritual aspect of Hawaiian traditional medicine, many herbs native to the islands were also used to treat a host of ills. Some of the most common include ‘awa, noni, kalo and ‘awapuhi.

Traditional Hawaiian health care is still alive and well on the islands today, even if it is most often combined with other forms of Western medicine for best results. Many Hawaiian doctors will use the techniques of generations past to help their patients enjoy an optimal state of “ola” or health. Ola also means life, because Hawaiians believe that without health you can have no life and without life, there is no health.

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