Powerful Herbal Pain Relief

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Capsaicin manipulates the body’s pain status by hindering pain perception, triggering the release of pain-relieving endorphins and providing analgesic action.
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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

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.

Healthy Oils Help Relieve Aches and Pains

Gamma-linolenic acid is one of the good fats.
It may help the body produce the kinds of prostaglandins and
leukotrienes (hormone-like substances that influence the immune
system and many other processes) that can reduce inflammation. It
curbs rheumatoid arthritic pain, relieving morning stiffness and
joint tenderness. Some evidence indicates that GLA also may help
migraine headaches and mild diabetic nerve damage. Borage (Borago
officinalis) and black currant (Ribes nigrum) seed oils are the
richest sources of GLA, containing up to 25 percent and 20 percent,
respectively, while evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), a
traditional source, delivers 7 percent to 10 percent. The
recommended daily dose for rheumatoid arthritis is 1 to 3 grams GLA
supplement, and for mild diabetic neuropathy 400 to 600 mg daily.
GLA is not an overnight fix and may take up to six months for
significant relief. Also, long-term use may lead to inflammation,
blood clots or decreased immune system functioning. A safe route to
introduce a little GLA into your diet is by eating a handful of
black currants regularly or spreading the preserves onto your
morning toast — you may as well enjoy your medicine!

Time-tested Herbal Helpers

White willow bark is one of the oldest home
analgesics, dating back to 500 b.c. in China. Modern research
confirms old-time wisdom, showing it helps back, osteoarthritic and
nerve pains. Willow bark contains apigenin, salicin and salicylic
acid, which provide anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-neuralgic
actions. At the end of a four-week study of 210 individuals
suffering from back pain, reported in the American Journal of
Medicine in 2000, 39 percent who had received 240 mg of salicin
daily were essentially pain free, compared to 6 percent of those
given a placebo.

Individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip also are
helped. Willow bark can be purchased as standardized extracts and
teas. If you have access to white willow and wish to make your own,
collect bark from a twig (never the main trunk). Use about 2
teaspoons of bark to a cup of water, boil, simmer for 10 minutes
and cool slightly. Because salicin concentration is low and widely
variable in willow bark, you may need several cups to obtain the
equivalent of two standard aspirin tablets. A word of caution:
Willow should not be given to children, due to the risk of Reye’s
syndrome, nor used by individuals with aspirin allergies, bleeding
disorders or liver or kidney disease. Willow may interact adversely
with blood-thinning medications and other anti-inflammatory drugs.
Also, willow tends not to irritate the stomach in the short term,
but long-term use may be problematic.

Peppermint is a famous antispasmodic for
digestive cramps, while its essential oil is used as a local
topical anesthetic in commercial ointments (Solarcaine and Ben-Gay,
for example). Germany’s Commission E authorizes use of oral
peppermint oil for treating colicky pain in the digestive tract of
adults. However, peppermint oil shouldn’t be used for colic in
newborn babies, as it can cause jaundice.

Several double-blind studies of individuals with irritable bowel
syndrome demonstrate peppermint can significantly relieve painful
abdominal cramps, bloating and flatulence. In the largest study,
reported in the Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers
administered either enteric-coated peppermint oil or a placebo to
110 individuals three to four times daily, 15 to 30 minutes before
meals, for four weeks. The study found peppermint significantly
reduced abdominal discomfort.

Take a 0.2- to 0.4-ml enteric-coated peppermint capsule three
times daily. (Enteric coating prevents stomach upset.) For mild
stomach discomfort, try a tea from fresh or dried peppermint
leaves. The menthol in peppermint relaxes the muscles. Its
antispasmodic and analgesic effects also can help relieve
headaches, possibly including migraines, when applied to the
forehead or temples — dilute about 3 drops of essential oil in 1
tablespoon of vegetable oil.

Herbal Blends and Other Old Friends

We’re also hearing more about commercial herbal mixtures for
pain relief. Two apparently promising ones are avocado/soybean
unsaponifiables and Phytodolor, both from Europe. Avocado/soybean
unsaponifiables are a complex mix of sterols, pigments and other
substances found in the oils, and initial trials suggest that a
daily dose of 300 mg soothes hip and knee osteoarthritic pain by
anti-inflammatory actions. Phytodolor, with a 40-year history in
Germany, is a liquid extract of European aspen (Populus tremula),
European ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and European goldenrod (Solidago
virgaurea). The extract helps muscle and joint conditions,
including osteoarthritis; it contains salicin and other chemicals
with anti-inflammatory and possibly antioxidant properties.

Don’t discount the psychological dimensions of pain in everyday
aches. For instance, most headaches have psychogenic causes, such
as anxiety, depression and stress, rather than vascular causes
(dilated or distended blood vessels in the brain). Psychogenic
headaches tend to be diffuse, often feeling more like pressure than
pain, and often are accompanied by muscular tension. Vascular
headaches, including migraines, respond more readily to
painkillers, whereas emotionally induced ones might benefit more
from herbs with calming or sedative properties, such as lavender
(Lavandula angustifolia), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or
valerian (Valeriana officinalis).

It shouldn’t be surprising that pain is multidimensional, and
our tools for combating it need to be also. When you’re suffering
from creakiness or other discomfort, consider the possible causes —
disease, physical strain, nutrient deficiency, chemical
sensitivities, allergies or emotional stress. Then you can access
the herbal apothecary effectively and appropriately, to fully
restore your well-being.

Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist living in Sault
Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. She is author of Catnip and Kerosene
Grass: What Plants Teach Us About Life

The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would
like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to
“Pain Relief,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS
66609; or e-mail us at editor@herbsforhealth.com.

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