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The Mystery of the Filipino Ailment Called ‘Pasma’

A man suspects his wife of having an affair; so he hires a private detective to follow her. In no time at all, the detective confirms that the man’s wife is, indeed, carrying on an illicit affair with a good-looking younger man.

Rather than confront his wife, the man decides to hatch a plan. He will catch his wife in the act with the other man and put an end to the affair with his shotgun.

One day he follows his wife to a motel where she is to meet her lover. Sure that they have checked in, he leaves his car with his shotgun and follows them to their room. He is about to open the door to the room when he has a brainstorm.

He hurries back to reception and asks for a pail of water, into which he pours cubes of ice. He hurries back to the room, opens the door, finds his wife and the other man naked making love and empties the pail of ice cold water onto their sprawled bodies.

This was a small study but its conclusion merits further investigation by medical researchers. What the study found out was that the group that claimed to have pasma tended to have more jobs and worked longer hours than those that did not. Therefore, there was the suspicion that the pasma is stress related or brought about by stressors.
On top of his voice, he shouts at them, “Uhhhmmm!!! Pasma kayo!!!”


So now that you have stopped laughing, it is time to tell you that the above anecdote was something I read in a local comic book many, many years ago. Long before, as a matter of fact, the Ice Bucket Challenge was ever conceived. It is a story that has been told and retold over and over.

But what exactly is the ‘pasma?’ You cannot be Filipino if you have not heard of this supposed ailment; or, if you had not been admonished by your mother not to do this and not to do that because, otherwise, you would get the dreaded pasma.

My own mother’s most frequent admonition was never to get my feet wet so soon after taking my shoes off after a day in school. Next was never to wash my hands after ironing some clothes. Finally, I should not go straight into the bath after playing under the sun.

If I asked my mother just what the pasma exactly was, I was encouraged to be curious no more with a very firm, “Basta!” Nothing can bring a conversation to a close faster than that interjection.

Thus, my understanding of this supposed ailment has always been vague. From what little explanation – if at all – that I got from my Mom, the pasma seems to be brought on by a sudden change of temperature to the body or limbs, especially when these are tired.

It was actually not until I was already in school that I got a bit more insight about the supposed ailment from classmates. Classmates who had sweaty and/or shaky hands would say that these were ‘pasmado.’

A classmate with a ‘pasmado’ hand, for instance, had a hard time holding his quill steady during Mechanical Drawing and could not draw a straight line.

Of course, the older I got, the more my Mom’s admonitions began to seem like they never really could hold water. For instance, because I played football, it was inevitable that I would get wet with my shoes on. Decades later and I do not think that playing in the rain did me any harm.

That thing about not taking a shower directly after playing under the sun also lost its believability because I played football. Playing under the blazing sun, a sudden downpour actually brought relief more than anything.

As to not washing one’s hands after ironing clothes, the planchadora who used to come in to iron clothes and clean the house would always do the dishes after ironing the clothes. I asked her once if she was not wary of getting pasma. She told me she had been doing this all her life.


So what is the pasma then, a superstition? I have researched this before over the Internet and have never found medical documentation to validate it.

Last Sunday, over lomi with a former player of mine who is now a medical student, I asked him if pasma has ever been taught to them. On the contrary, he told me, they have been told that there is no medical basis for the condition.

From what I have read up over the Internet, shaky or unsteady hands can be caused by something as mundane as anxiety or too much coffee; or something to be more concerned about like low blood sugar or Parkinson’s disease. It can also be caused by something called hyperthyroidism or some medicines that one is taking. (Dr. Suresh Kumar, Medical Content on Hub Pages)

Sweaty palms or soles of the feet, on the other hand, are a condition called focal hyperhidrosis. As a medical condition, it can be either congenital or acquired. What causes it is still unknown although there are medical doctors who say that it may be caused by excessive activity in the sympathetic nervous system. (Wikipedia)

Whatever in hell that is. Smiley.

Hardly surprising, there is no mention of taking baths soon after taking off the shoes or washing hands after ironing clothes. Unless I missed these, of course; and medical documentation over the Internet is rather voluminous.

If there are medical doctors who come across this article, do enlighten all of us. I am just the blogger.

Of course, my Mom – bless her soul – had a litany of things she loved to admonish us with but never fully explained. Like, that we should never go to sleep with the hair still wet or we risked losing our minds. Or that we should not take baths on Good Fridays. All of which, I have to say, I habitually disobeyed as a matter of course.


Not everyone is a disbeliever, however.

A University of the Philippines anthropologist by the name of Michael Tan, in an article published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, wrote, “I’ve been lecturing in several medical schools for several years now and I keep urging health professionals to be more inquisitive about these illnesses because even if these are not recognized by mainstream medicine, the ailments are very real as far as people are concerned, causing suffering and may even be cited as the cause of death, as in the case of ‘bangungot.’ ”

A group of UP medical students took him up on this and conducted a formal study on laundrywomen in Pasay City. One group of laundrywomen tested claimed to have the pasma while the other control group did not.

This was a small study but its conclusion merits further investigation by medical researchers. What the study found out was that the group that claimed to have pasma tended to have more jobs and worked longer hours than those that did not. Therefore, there was the suspicion that the pasma is stress related or brought about by stressors.

It will take a lot more investigation to verify pasma as a medical fact, but something Tan wrote in his article deserves a smirk from all of us. Tan wrote that, while lecturing about AIDS prevention, sex workers would claim to have gotten pasma from bathing soon after sex.

So perhaps, that man who gave his unfaithful wife a dose of the ice bucket challenge knew what he was doing, after all. Wink.