Powerful Herbal Pain Relief

Ease pain naturally and gently with willow and other herbs.


| January/February 2005



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I recently had the pleasure of visiting the home of a gracious woman who deals in antiques. As I admired the many fine pieces displayed there, I came to realize that I, too, am something of a period piece — a baby boomer who’s fundamentally sound but sporting the odd, creaky hinge or two.

Fortunately, the herbal apothecary holds promise. Its medicines are good alternatives to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for chronic, mild to moderate aches and can reduce the need for prescription drugs.

More than 100 plants are known to have pain-relieving properties, but some are really outstanding. Reporting on herbal painkillers for arthritis, a review of clinical trials in the Clinical Journal of Pain says devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), capsaicin from hot chiles (Capsicum spp.), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) from seed oils, and certain blended herbal extracts are especially good. Other studies indicate broader pain-relieving benefits from these as well as two traditional favorites, white willow (Salix spp.) and peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita).

Herbal Rx: Devil’s Claw and Capsaicin

Devil’s claw is a South African herb with medicinally active roots. This herb eases muscular tension or pain in the back, shoulders and neck. A popular treatment for osteoarthritic pain, it may ease rheumatoid arthritic pain as well. The herb’s active ingredients are harpagide and harpagoside, both iridoid glycosides with analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory actions. Devil’s claw extract has been shown to reduce osteoarthritic hip or knee pain by 25 percent and improve mobility within a few weeks. Rheumatoid arthritic pain may also be reduced and mobility enhanced within about two months. Devil’s claw extract is considered safe at the typical dosage of 750 mg (containing 3 percent iridoid glycosides) taken three times daily. It is also available as tincture (use 1 teaspoon up to three times daily) and tea. It should not be taken with blood-thinning medications and may not be safe during pregnancy or for young children, nursing mothers and individuals with liver or kidney disease, or digestive system ulcers.

Capsaicin puts the heat in hot peppers. It manipulates the body’s pain status by hindering pain perception, triggering the release of pain-relieving endorphins and providing analgesic action. Commercial capsaicin-containing creams such as Zostrix, Heet and Capzasin-P are used topically for arthritic and nerve pain. Creams containing .025 percent capsaicin can significantly reduce osteoarthritic pain when applied to joints four times daily. A higher concentration of .075 percent works best for peripheral nerve pain — such as that from diabetic nerve damage, HIV and pain following cancer surgery. When using topical capsaicin products, be sure to avoid touching your eyes and other sensitive areas.

Capsaicin also may be taken internally to help with chronic digestive discomfort, or dyspepsia: A daily dose of 0.5 to 1 grams cayenne, divided and taken before meals, reduces pain, bloating and nausea over a few weeks. If you like to munch hot peppers, rest assured that they do not aggravate stomach ulcers as is commonly believed, and they may actually protect your stomach from prescription-drug damage.





elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

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