Powerful Herbal Pain Relief

A few days ago, I 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 non-steroidal 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 x 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 osteoarthritis pain, it may ease the 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 arthritis 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.


 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, Heat, and Capzasin-P are used topically for arthritis 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 can 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 actually might protect your stomach from prescription-drug damage.

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 unsaponifiable and Phytodolor, both from Europe. Avocado/soybean unsaponifiable 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 osteoarthritis 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 another 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.


 Aromatherapists use chamomile essential oil to promote relaxation and pain relief.

 Herbs and Liver Damage.

Herb expert James Duke, PhD., points out that many more herbs protect the liver than harm it. In fact, one of America’s favorite over-the-counter drugs, acetaminophen {Tylenol and other brands}, is riskier than most herbs. Although safe within recommended dosages, acetaminophen overdoses {some of which occur among people simply trying to relieve their pain} are the main cause of acute liver failure, and contribute to 500 American deaths a year.
That said, the following herbs should be avoided, particularly in people with the known liver disease, heavy drinkers {or recreational drugs}, and those taking liver-taxing drugs, such as acetaminophen {Tylenol}, aspirin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories {such as ibuprofen}, corticosteroids, statins, tetracyclines and others.

Herbs that contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids:

comfrey, coltsfoot, Senecio, borage leaf, and germander. Comfrey has gotten the most media attention for its connection to liver injury. In 2001, the Food and Drug Administration advised manufacturers to remove from the market comfrey products intended for internal use. Because this herb is a good wound healer, it’s often an ingredient in first-aid salves. Another PA-containing herb, butterbur, is available as a PA-free extract {Petadolex} for the prevention of migraine headaches and hay fever.

Kava {Piper methysticum}

For many years, people of the South Pacific have consumed kava beverages with the single side effect of a scaly, yellowish skin condition with excessive use. Research showing concentrated kava extracts reduced anxiety spurred its widespread popularity. Although human studies didn’t register liver toxicity, cases of liver injury {some severe} cropped up several years ago. Most involved ingestion of kava extracts made with acetone or alcohol, and often along with alcohol or drugs that can be hard on the liver.
Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, says, “no convincing proof of an inherent toxicity of kava exists,” despite ongoing research. And, while he believes kava to be relatively safe, “the jury is still out as whether kava might cause liver injury, particularly in susceptible individuals.”
Steven Dentali, PhD., Chief Science Officer for the American Herbal Products Association, adds, “Considering the widespread consumption of kava beverages and the long history of apparent safe use, any toxic liver reactions are of course serious, but extremely rare.”

A general guideline:

Don’t take herbs that have even a suspicion of harming the liver if you already have liver disease or regularly drink alcohol or use recreational drugs. Also, avoid herbs if you take a medication that can be toxic to the liver.
Consult your health-care provider if you are unsure.
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