Herbal Pain Relief – is it a realistic concept?
By Dr Connie Meyer MCPP.
Conventional pain medication is possibly one of the biggest money spinners in the pharmaceutical industry. Most people, no matter how assiduously they avoid taking medication, will have a packet of headache pills tucked away somewhere.
Taking pain medication is routine for many people, usually for headaches and period pain, but also for chronic pain as in joint and muscle pain. The regular intake of pain medication can lead to serious health problems, this is why patients are often concerned about the amount they take, and may look for alternatives.
In herbal medicine there are many herbs which reported to have an analgaesic effect (that is they are purported to give relief from pain). However, in practice it is clear that the efficacy of the herb is far from what we are accustomed to in conventional medicine. In the first place the herbal remedy is often not as strong, and in the second place it generally doesn’t work swiftly enough. The advertisements for conventional analgaesics usually highlight these words: Fast, effective, relief. Realistically, this is not so true of herbal pain medication.
Pain medication such as aspirin was originally synthesized from Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet) or Salix alba (Willow bark), two herbs which contain salicylates. In the synthesis of the drug, the salicylate content is extracted and concentrated into its pure form, which makes it very efficient as a pain reliever, but also causes slight abdominal bleeding. In herbal medicine using willow bark, the salicylate content is released when the bark is simmered in boiling water. Because the salicylate is not concentrated in this way, but merely dissolves in the water to a certain extent, and is combined with other chemical constituents of the plant material, the effect is not as strong as with aspirin. At the same time it has been shown that in this form, there is no abdominal bleeding. So for a mild pain killer like willow bark, the advantage is that there are no side effects, but the disadvantage is that it is somewhat less effective than the drug aspirin.
Willow bark or meadowsweet may be useful for cases of mild headache and the aches and pains of flu. For acute pain one would have to look at other herbs. Other herbs which contain salicylates are birch leaf and quaking aspen bark, and these are often used in the treatment of joint pain.
Herbal Pain Management
This is often a requirement when patients are suffering from chronic pain, as in cancer, inflammatory disease such as arthritis, ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), fibromyalgia etc.
From a herbal medicine perspective, part of the pain management will come from the holistic treatment of the patient, i.e. the use of anti-inflammatories, circulatory stimulants and herbs that help eliminate uric and other acids. Topical applications such as creams and poultices can be very useful where localized pain is a problem such as sore joints or wounds. Generally a phytotherapist will make use of several different modes of action to combat pain, rather than using only symptomatic methods.
Herbal medicine to combat extreme pain is usually very toxic (eg. Aconite Gelsemium, Belladonna), and thus available only in homoeopathic form. The danger of using it in herbal form is that the toxic level is close to the dose that actually provides relief, and toxic effects in such herbs are often cumulative. In cases of severe pain, conventional analgaesics are safer, because they are in controlled doses.
In phytotherapy, the holistic management of extreme pain can be achieved by using a combination of pain relieving herbal medicine and conventional medicine. However this must be controlled by a phytotherapist, who will know which herbs and drugs may interact. This will also involve treatment of the side-effects of conventional medicine, and liver and kidney protection. The benefits to the patient are that they can often reduce their pain medication to a much lower dose, and therefore experience far fewer side effects.
In Phytotherapy most types of pain are treated without pain killers.
In herbal medicine, many types of pain are treated very successfully without using any pain medication.
Pain caused by spasm eg colic; vascular spasm, muscle spasm; menstrual pain is relieved by using herbal antispasmodics rather than pain killers. These are very effective.
For migraine a combination of antispasmodics and general relaxants would be used, but other herbs specific to the case would have to be taken as well. Other types of pain such as neuralgia and the pain of shingles are treated with topical applications and internal support for the nervous system.
Pain caused by trauma, such as insect stings, scrapes, burns and cuts, is treated topically. Here it is handy to have a first aid kit containing Echinacea tincture for immediate and frequent application to cat scratches, dog bites, insect stings and even in the case of an emergency where nothing else is at hand, snake bite. Echinacea is a very effective topical anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, and also inhibits the spread of toxins if applied immediately. Although Echinacea is not a pain killer, it reduces the amount of pain by acting as an anti-inflammatory, and will dramatically reduce the swelling and irritation.
Another excellent remedy, especially for burns is Calendula tincture. If applied immediately it will prevent blistering, and also dramatically reduces the amount of pain. It is good to keep a bottle of both of these tinctures in a handy spot, such as the kitchen.
Herbal pain relief is a realistic concept, but a rather different one from that of conventional medicine, as it is less symptomatic and concentrates more on the cause of the pain. Pain after all is telling us something, and we need to listen to our bodies and sort out the cause of the pain.