Natural Healing: Anti Inflammatory Herbs for Pain Relief

Solving the pain puzzle

| May/June 2003

Whether it’s a headache, sore muscles or arthritis, when pain strikes, life suddenly seems to stop. So you reach for the aspirin, or maybe the ibuprofen or naproxen. If you suffer from chronic pain, you may look to even stronger drugs to ease your suffering. But, while over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers can temporarily interrupt pain, most come with undesirable, even dangerous, side effects — and some may actually worsen the problem by inhibiting the healing process.

The Anatomy of Pain

We all know what pain feels like, but few of us know the biology behind the “ouch” factor. Pain is a result of inflammation. When you are injured, the body responds with cyclooxygenase-2 or COX-2, a recently discovered enzyme related to COX-1. While COX-1 enzymes are responsible for maintaining balance in the stomach and kidneys, COX-2 involves turning a stored fat called arachidonic acid into prostaglandins, which inflame injured areas and lead to pain.

Enter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen, over-the-counter remedies that work by inhibiting COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. Although NSAIDs are the most popular pain-relief medications, long-term use can result in gastrointestinal upset, peptic ulcers and intestinal bleeding, and may even contribute to colon, kidney or liver damage. In fact, a report in The American Journal of Medicine revealed that more than 107,000 people are hospitalized each year due to complications from NSAID use.

In an effort to soothe pain without leaving users vulnerable to these side effects, researchers have created a new generation of COX-2 inhibitors. Sold under the names Celebrex and Vioxx, these drugs also relieve pain and inflammation, but because they only target the COX-2 enzyme, they carry fewer gastrointestinal risks than traditional NSAIDs. Better yet, studies have found that Celebrex was just as effective at stopping pain as narcotics without the risk of addiction, and Vioxx could conquer the toughest menstrual cramps. While these drugs were being hailed as the new “safe” aspirin, disturbing reports began to surface. Users reported several side effects, including diarrhea, headaches, respiratory infections, dizziness and skin rashes. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine found that these new pain relievers could worsen colitis and interfere with the healing of gastric ulcers. Of greater concern, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration received reports of 10 deaths within months of the release of Celebrex and both drugs were found to increase heart-attack risk. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 23,407 patients found that these new drugs significantly increase the risk of heart attack.

Fortunately, a number of natural methods can defeat pain without relying on risky over-the-counter and prescription drugs. The following herbs offer relief through their anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. But, instead of dealing a deathblow to COX-2, these herbs modulate the production of prostaglandins, thereby keeping inflammation in check.

Boswellia (Boswellia serrata): Long used by Ayurvedic practitioners to treat inflammatory diseases, boswellia binds to the enzymes that cause inflammation. German researchers recently found that the herb is an effective remedy for the chronic pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis. To ease arthritic pain, take 150 mg three times daily.

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