Natural Relief: Herbs for Pain Management
Aching, burning, throbbing, sharp, dull, tingling, hot—because the individual experience of pain and what drives pain is so unique, herbs for pain management are best when they are specific and personal to the individual.
It was once thought that pain was caused by damaged tissue; tissue that could be identified, surgically removed or treated with medication until healing occurred. Our modern understanding of pain is more sophisticated and continues to evolve. We know there is rarely a simple, direct relationship between the extent of tissue damage and the amount of pain some individuals feel. In painful and chronic conditions like Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome damaged tissue usually cannot be identified.
Fortunately, nature has provided us with many pain-relieving herbs that possess a wide range of actions. Unlike pain medication that tends to target one cause of pain, herbal pain formulas can target many and help address the emotional toll often associated with chronic pain. The many pain-relieving herbs described below possess actions that are anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxing, , nerve pain-relieving, circulatory stimulants and analgesic. In most cases, they are best used in combination to address the unique experience of the individual. As always, if you are being treated for a medical condition or taking medication, discuss the use of these herbs for pain management with your healthcare practitioner, first.
A Holistic Approach to Pain Management
While herbs can help relieve both acute and chronic pain, as with most herbal remedies, they are best used as part of a multifaceted approach. There are many therapeutic options for pain relief and chronic pain management beyond western medicine and pharmaceuticals–herbs, acupuncture, body work, chiropractic adjustments, dietary changes, yoga and other movement modalities, and psycho-therapy, to name just a few. The choice is personal, and results will vary, but a focus on your individual experience is key. The Academy for Integrative Pain Management sums it up this way: “[t]he path to pain reduction lies in the power of applying many different healing therapies in a way that complements the patient’s needs, beliefs and personality. While each of these therapies offer healing, the patient remains the key component to pain reduction. Pain patients must believe and affirm that they can reduce their pain and then select those therapies that will assist in doing so.”
Whether you are looking for new solutions for chronic pain or alternatives to the over-the-counter pain-killers in your medicine chest, these herbal alternatives for pain relief have much to offer.
Herbs for Pain Management
Herbal anti-inflammatories modulate or damp down excessive inflammation. They are useful in most herbal pain formulas, and especially for joint pain, osteoarthritis, back pain, headaches including migraines, and fibromyalgia. Herbal anti-inflammatories are also helpful in autoimmune conditions like Rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus or Hashimoto’s. Some of the most effective herbal anti-inflammatories are: Boswellia (Boswellia spp.) also known as Frankincense, Cannabis (Cannabis spp.), Devil’s Claw Harpagophytum procumbens, Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Turmeric (Curucma longa), and White Willow Bark (Salix alba).
Herbal antispasmodics help to relieve muscle pain, relax tight muscles and relieve excess tension in the body. They help soothe muscle spasm in both skeletal muscles and in smooth muscles like those of the digestive tract or the uterus in cases of menstrual cramps. Like herbal anti-inflammatories, anti-spasmodic herbs are helpful in most pain formulas. Even when the primary cause of pain is not muscular, muscles around the painful area often become sore and stiff in their efforts to avoid pain with movement. Some of the best herbal anti-spasmodics for pain also calm the nervous system and help ease nervous tension. This calming effect can have a significant impact on the brain’s perception of pain and improve one’s ability to cope with discomfort. Good anti-spasmodic herbs include: Cramp Bark Viburnum opulus), Kava (Piper methysticum), Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis or stichensis), and Wild Yam (Discorea villosa). Among these, Skullcap, Kava and Valerian also help relieve nervous tension and irritability.
Herbal Sedatives and Anodynes for Nerve Pain
Some herbs help relieve nerve pain or neurogenic pain, which may be caused by damage to the peripheral nerves or to the central nervous system itself. While the cause of nerve pain is sometimes hard to identify or explain, it may manifest as burning or tingling sensations or sharp, shooting pain. Some herbs that help relieve nerve pain are strong sedatives that help numb pain. A nerve anodyne describes other herbs that seem to have a direct effect on nerve pain, though the mechanism of action is not fully understood. Herbal sedatives and nerve anodynes for nerve pain include: California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Kava (Piper methysticum), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis or stichensis), and Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa). Of these, California Poppy, Valerian and Wild Lettuce are sedative and anti-spasmodic.
Good blood circulation to stiff joints, aching muscles and other areas with localized pain helps relieve congestion in tissue and promote recovery. To promote circulation add one or more of these herbs to your pain formula: Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Ginger is also an effective anti-inflammatory.
An analgesic simply refers to a substance that relieves pain. Herbs can also be used topically to relieve pain in a variety of ways. Anti-spasmodic herbs used topically can have a direct effect on sore muscles and herbal anti-inflammatories can reduce localized inflammation as in the case of joint pain. Some herbs used topically for pain work by depleting a neurotransmitter, called Substance P, which is used to transmit the pain signal from peripheral nerves to the brain. Without Substance P, the pain signal cannot be sent. Herbs that deplete Substance P include Cayenne (Capsicum annuum), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), and Turmeric (Curucma longa).
There is a wide range of possibilities when it comes to choosing herbs for pain management or creating a personalized formula. Consider both the mechanism causing pain and your personal experience. Are you using any of these herbs or utilizing other holistic strategies for pain relief? What has or hasn’t worked for you? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!