El Empacho [Cultural Topic]

El Empacho medical Spanish cultural belief

“El empacho” is a Spanish phrase that literally translates to “stomach obstruction”.

Basically, it refers to food or other substances causing a blockage in the stomach or intestines.  

Naturally, intestinal obstructions can occur (as you know if you work in the emergency room like me). But some beliefs around El Empacho are not necessarily rooted in actual physiology.  

Regardless, it can be useful for clinicians or other healthcare workers to understand the traditional perspective.

In this article, I’ll explain what’s believed to cause El Empacho, associated symptoms, and various treatment considerations.  

Let’s get started.  

(Obviously, nothing I share here is individual medical advice.)

Video Version

Here’s a 5-minute video of me explaining El Empacho:

If you’d rather just read, carry on. 🙂

What Causes El Empacho?

The suspected reasons behind El Empacho vary. However, some of the most common causes of Empacho are believed to be:

  1. Eating certain foods – especially foods that are high in fiber, which could cause your digestive system to work harder than usual. This could lead to excess gas and pressure in your stomach. Examples: beans, broccoli, cabbage, corn, lentils, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.
  2. Eating too much food could lead to El Empacho. To avoid being overly full and triggering El Empacho, some people recommend eating smaller and more frequent meals. 
  3. Eating food that’s not adequately cooked could make it harder to digest, and lead to issues. 
  4. Certain diseases – Diseases such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and gastroenteritis may cause el empacho.

Symptoms of El Empacho

Symptoms often attributed to El Empacho include the following:

  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Stomach cramps
  • Indigestion

Treatments Used for El Empacho

Various treatments have been used for El Empacho over the years. Here are a few traditional methods, as well as some more modern concepts (which could be more relevant if there’s an actual diagnosable condition). 

Traditional Methods (probably ineffective):

  1. Drinking herbal teas
  2. Rolling an egg on the stomach
  3. Rough massage of the abdomen
  4. Administering Azarcon or Greta (might cause lead poisoning)

On a related note, here’s a popular YouTube video with a Spanish-speaking lady explaining a home remedy for Empacho, which appears to be olive oil and garlic. Feel free to watch a little if you want to practice your Spanish comprehension. 🙂

Interestingly, she advises not to go to the doctor, because she says doctors don’t believe Empacho is an actual illness.

More Modern Ideas

  1. Following a low-fiber diet
  2. Burping or by lying on your side (if caused by gas pressure)
  3. Taking over-the-counter medications
  4. Antibiotics (if associated with food poisoning)
  5. Gastroscopy (if caused by an actual obstruction in your digestive tract)

Wrapping Up

El Empacho is a traditional Hispanic belief about gastrointestinal obstruction caused by food, fluid, gas, or other substances.

It’s related to other health-related beliefs in Hispanic culture, such as Mal de Ojo (Evil Eye)

While the traditional aspects of the belief are not necessarily rooted in actual physiology, it overlaps with real medicine in that gastrointestinal infections do occur and can be life-threatening. And other nonspecific conditions like indigestion are related as well.

Hopefully next time your patient brings up Empacho or something similar, you’ll be better prepared to understand their perspective.