Herbs for Health: Natural Analgesics and Dandelion Uses

Easing Muscle Aches and Improving Organs

| April/May 1998

  • Camphor
  • Cayenne pepper
    Photography by Steven Foster
  • Black mustard growing wild in a field in California
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Common dandelion
  • Wintergreen leaf and berry
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Frost-covered leaves of a chaste tree

A Supplement to The Herb Companion From the
American Botanical Council and The Herb Research Foundation

Last summer, as I was stooping to photograph a plant, the muscles in my left shoulder and neck suddenly became locked. My head was frozen at a 45° angle, and a sharp pain radiated through my upper body. During the next two days, I took the muscle relaxants and painkillers prescribed by my physician, tried drinking a kava-root extract to relax the muscles, and even ventured to the chiropractor’s for realignment—to no avail. My neck stayed as crooked and painful as ever. Finally, an acupuncturist relaxed my muscles and reduced their inflammation by inserting needles and rubbing my neck with a cooling menthol balm.

Muscle pain is one of the most common complaints for which people seek advice from health-care practitioners. It may arise through overuse, injury, or disorders such as osteoarthritis, spinal tuberculosis, or kidney or liver disease. Sudden changes of temperature and humidity also can cause temporary stiffness and soreness. One time-honored approach to treating muscle pain is to massage the affected area with an analgesic salve, like the menthol preparation my acupuncturist rubbed on my neck. External analgesics provide an easy and effective way to cope with muscle pain; in fact, they have been the fastest-­growing nonprescription drugs since 1990, with sales increasing at about 11 percent per year.

External Analgesics Provide an Easy and Effective Way to Cope with Muscle Pain.

Many popular over-the-counter topical pain relievers contain ingredients derived from plants, such as mustard seed, sweet birch oil, peppermint, and red peppers. These are all counterirritants—­substances that relieve pain by ­producing a lesser pain and sometimes also mild skin inflammation above the site of the aching muscle. Some suspect that counterirritants also increase blood flow to the muscles, allowing the heat they ­produce to penetrate the skin to deeper tissues.

Allyl isothiocyanate

A traditonal remedy for chest colds and sore muscles is the mustard poultice, a paste of powdered mustard seed, flour, and water spread on a piece of cloth which is laid briefly on the skin (contact with the skin for more than a few minutes can cause blisters). Today, German health authorities allow the use of mustard-seed poultices to treat upper respiratory congestion and injuries to joints and soft tissue.

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