Pharmaceutical drugs may not be your only path to pain relief. Natural pain treatments — like herbal medicine, in which parts of a plant are used medicinally to treat health problems — is an increasingly popular way to manage pain as well.
Many herbs and spices can treat inflammation and other related conditions. These plant-based options fall under a category of medical treatment known as complementary and alternative medicine, which also includes acupuncture, yoga, reiki and other practices. When it comes to pain relief, you may be surprised at what might help you feel better.
Though research on herbal remedies is still in its early phases, many herbs are thought to provide pain management and decrease inflammation. However, it’s important to exercise caution, especially if you’re taking a prescription medication, which may interact with certain herb. If that’s the case, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before venturing into a natural remedy.
Natural Pain Relief: Popular Herbal Options
Here are some common herbal remedies used for natural pain relief:
1. Capsaicin. Derived from hot chile peppers, topical capsaicin may be useful for some people in relieving pain. “Capsaicin works by depleting substance P, a compound that conveys the pain sensation from the peripheral to the central nervous system. It takes a couple of days for this to occur,” says David Kiefer, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
2. Ginger. Though more studies are needed, says Dr. Kiefer, ginger extract may help with joint and muscle pain because it contains phytochemicals, which help stop inflammation. Few side effects have been linked to ginger when taken in small doses.
3. Feverfew. Feverfew has been used for centuries to treat headaches, stomachaches, and toothaches. Nowadays it’s also used for migraines and rheumatoid arthritis. More studies are required to confirm whether feverfew is actually effective, but the herb may be worth trying since it hasn’t been associated with serious side effects. Mild side effects include canker sores and irritation of the tongue and lips. Pregnant women should avoid this remedy.
4. Turmeric. This spice has been used to relieve arthritis pain and heartburn, and to reduce inflammation. Turmeric works against pain and inflammation, due to a chemical called curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Traditionally used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine to treat arthritis turmeric blocks inflammatory cytokines and enzymes, including cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), which is the pathway that controls pain signals. Turmeric is usually safe to use, but high doses or long-term use may cause indigestion. Also, people with gallbladder disease should avoid using turmeric.
5. Devil’s Claw. There is some scientific evidence that this South African herb may be effective in managing arthritis and lower back pain. Side effects are very rare if taken at a therapeutic dose for the short term, but it’s not advised for pregnant women and those with gallstones or stomach or intestinal ulcers.
Natural Pain Relief: Proceed With Caution
There are many other herbal remedies for natural pain relief, such as boswellia and willow bark. The American Pain Foundation also lists these herbs for pain management:
- Ginseng for fibromyalgia
- Kava Kava for tension headaches and neuropathic pain
- St. John’s Wort for sciatica, arthritis, and neuropathic pain
- Valerian root for spasms and muscle cramps
Since some herbal therapies for pain management have yet to be thoroughly studied, be careful when embarking on this treatment path. Regardless of the herb you try, remember that they’re not benign. Research into their safety and efficacy is still limited, and the government doesn’t regulate herbal products for quality. The best course is to talk to a healthcare professional before testing out a herbal remedy, especially if you are currently taking any prescribed medications or have a medical condition.
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