"Nirooha vamana kaya sirorekosravisrutaya iti panchkarmani" (Astanga hrdaya, sutrasthana, 14/5). Panchkarma literally means five actions or techniques. They are Vamana (induced vomiting/emesis), Virechana (purgation), kashaya Vasti and sneha Vasti (two kinds of medicated enemas with decoction and unctuous material), Nasya (nasal medication) and Raktamokshana (blood-letting). A major therapeutic use of panchkarma is purification (sodhana) of the body. Though sodhana (purification) forms a major part of Panchkarma. But Panchkarma is not a purificatory technique (sodhana chikitsa) alone; The purificatory treatment in the form of Panchkarma is quite unique to Ayurveda. According to Charaka samhita, one of the earliest writings on Ayurveda, if a disease is treated with sodhana, it does not recur. Thus, Panchkarma becomes an important part of Ayurvedic treatment modality.
There is a difference of opinion among classical authors on the techniques that come under Panchkarma. Some include Vamana (emesis), Virechana (purgation), two types of Vastis (enemas) and Nasya (nasal medication). Here it is to be noted that even though there is a difference of opinion, most of the classical authors like Susruta and Vagbhata include Raktamokshana (blood-letting) in Panchakarma apart from the other four techniques. Panchakarma is commonly used in treating broad categories of conditions – arthritic, rheumatic, neurological, neuro-muscular, musculo-skeletal disorders, other degenerative conditions, mental disorders, insomnia, depression, menstrual irregularities, infertility, obesity, asthma and other respiratory conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, gastro-intestinal conditions, other chronic conditions, etc. Thus, Panchkarma has preventive, curative and promotive functions.
In Ayurveda, there are three methods of treatment. They are Hetu vipareetha (against cause), vyadhivipareetha (against disease) or ubhayarthakari (both the above). Panchkarma includes all the three types of treatments.