Pain relief with herbal medicine: myth or reality?

As seen in Tonic Magazine
By Guy Chamberland

Patients with acute or chronic pain conditions can turn to a natural approach as an alternative to synthetic drugs.  But will herbs be able to partially or completely reduce pain within 48 hours?  This is actually a pharmacological question and when it comes to pain relief, it is a YES or NO answer.  The fact that pain has a major impact on quality of life, sleep and social-economic factors, such as your ability to adequately perform at work means that you need to find treatments that are rapidly effective.

In the conventional medicine, rapid and effective pain relief can be obtained using a combination of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as Ibuprofen, analgesic drugs like acetaminophen or narcotic (ex.: hydromorphone) and, or muscle relaxants drugs.  Clinical trials and medical practice has shown that this pharmacological-based approach to pain management can be effective.  However, there are limitations to pain relief even with prescription medications.  For example, replacing a mild narcotic pain killer with a stronger opiate (e.g., Morphine) may relieve the pain but it may also result in intolerable side effects.  This is where the herbal approach could offer some advantages, using the similar strategies, i.e. blocking the pain signal with herbs that offer anti-inflammatory, analgesic and muscular relaxant properties but with less side effects.

Throughout history various cultures have used herbs to treat pain.  Today the mechanism of action of many of these herbs has been elucidated and not surprisingly these are similar to that of synthetic drugs.  However, there are some herbs that are considered condition-specific, for example Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and rheumatic conditions; that is, their efficacy is established through traditional use but the mode of action is not established. The main difference between a drug and a herbal medicine is that the drug usually consists of a single pure ingredient whereas the herb consists of a blend of active ingredients.  The herb’s pain relief benefits are derived from its multiple ingredients usually acting through different pain relief pathways (i.e., anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic).  The relatively lower dose of the ingredients along with the multiple activities is usually what gives the herb its safety profile and efficacy.

To name few of the most common and understood herbs: Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)), have well-established anti-inflammatory, California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)) offers analgesics properties similar to narcotics and, e.g., Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)) is often used for its anti-spasmodic activity.  At lower doses levels these herbs may be effective in relieving chronic pain but relatively higher dose levels of the active ingredients will be required to rapidly and effectively block acute pain.  This is an important factor since you want relief in the first days of taking the product and not after several weeks.  As a second step, the therapist could suggest products that are designed to bring relief for chronic pain conditions (ex. Glucosamine, MSM) and encourage patient to modify lifestyle habits that could contribute to painful conditions.

Extracts of the secondary root of Devil’s claw have been tested in many clinical trials, including controlled clinical trials in patients with arthritis and low back pain.  It is a very effective anti-inflammatory and analgesic herb.  California poppy is an analgesic and sedative-hypnotic herb that is an excellent pain-relief remedy.  Part of its pharmacological activity is derived from ingredients that act on the same pharmacological sites in the body that are targeted by analgesic or sedative synthetic drugs.    These properties can be exploited to develop effective remedies for pain relief and pain-related insomnia.  Devil’s claw and California poppy in combination make very good remedies for pain relief as they act on both anti-inflammatory and analgesic targets.

Given their potency, the above herbs should be used with caution and certainly always in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommended use and risk statements (i.e., cautions, warnings).  It is important to look for products that are approved by Health Canada as this tells you that the dose levels have been determined to be safe.  If you are taking medication, talk to a health professional as these herb extracts will contain ingredients that have pharmacological properties similar to those of synthetic drugs and the combination of herb and drug may result in side effects.

Bottom line, obtaining acute pain relief using herbal remedies is not a myth.  Herbal remedies may be quite efficacious in pain relief.  You should stop taking the product if you do not obtain any benefit after several days.  Some products are designed to bring relief for chronic pain conditions and not acute pain and this should be discussed with your health care professional.  Keep in mind that obtaining rapid pain relief requires pharmacologically active herbs and you have the option of going natural!

Guy Chamberland is the Vice President of Research at Curaphyte Technologies. He can be contacted at curaphyte-technologies@live.ca .