This article on herbal pain relief looks at three major categories of herbs: antiinflammatory, antispasmodic, and anodyne agents
The topic of herbal pain relief is one of the biggest reasons why people approach herbalists and holistic health practitioners. The same is true for MDs, except they would prescribe pharmaceutical pain medication instead. We understandably seek help for relieving or navigating pain and discomfort when pain reaches levels that set us back or compromise our tolerance and quality of life.
We can feel pain virtually anywhere in our body: joints, skin, nerves, organs, bones, and the list goes on. Pain is also in our mind and psyche. When we think of all the different kinds of pain we can experience, it opens the door for many herbal remedies. There are several herbal medicinal categories to consider: antiinflammatory herbs, antispasmodic herbs, and pain distancers, or narcotics. If we include the mind, there are also restorative and calmative nervines, antianxiety and antidepressant herbs.
Herbal pain relief: Understanding a few terms
There are a few terms I would like to define before we begin. One is “analgesic,” which describes substances that relieve pain without sedation. Another is “anodyne,” which describes substances that relieve pain along with some degree of sedation. “Narcotic” refers to psychoactive substances that distance one from or numb pain while also including sleep and/or euphoria. There are many herbs that fall into the categories of antiinflammatories, antispasmodics (spasmolytics), analgesics, anodynes and narcotics. Some herbs fall into more than one of these categories simultaneously, making them even more diverse and effective in their action.
“Inflammation” is another word that needs a little more explanation. As I said earlier, inflammation can occur anywhere in the body. Anything that ends with the suffix “itis” in medicine is describing an inflammatory condition, whether we’re talking about tonsillitis, colitis, arthritis, esophagitis, bronchitis, carditis, neuritis, gastritis, or any of dozens of other “itis” disorders that have been labeled as such. By definition, any inflammation will include some degree of redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function. All of these traits are usually discernible when you can see it and feel it, such as a bruise or sprain or other inflammation on the surface of the body; but the majority of inflammatory issues are happening inside the body, which means you feel but do not see the effects of inflammation, unless of course you are viewing it through some form of scope. The other thing we need to know is that inflammation is the body’s response to something that has caused some part of you to be compromised or adversely affected by an acute or ongoing (chronic) insult, injury, or invasion. In this sense, we should not demonize our inflammations, but rather recognize them for the beacons and guideposts that they are, directing our awareness to areas that need attention and help.
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Herbal pain relief: Types of herbs you should know
Antiinflammatory herbs are important and useful to know. Within that large general category, you will discover that different herbs have affinities for certain parts of the body, like antiinflammatory agents for particular organ systems. Some herbs for pain relief are amazing and go just about everywhere throughout the body, and so they become more well known. Near or at the top on this list is turmeric (Curcuma longa). Turmeric is famous, as is its main active, pain-relieving constituent — curcumin — a celebrity supplement, and for good reason. It works.
Chinese medicine would say these herbs are antiinflammatory because they help to move qi. There is a saying in Chinese medicine: “Blood follows qi.” Once qi moves easefully, dispelling blockages and regaining more of a free flow through its many channels, then blood also flows more freely through its channels. If blood congestion is dissipated or dispelled, then inflammation automatically reduces, because inflammation is caused by the body sending more blood to that area in order to attend to an issue or a problem. So, especially in joint pain formulas or arthritic pain formulas, you’re going to want to include antiinflammatory agents that from the Chinese point of view are qi and blood movers. These herbs help to relieve pain by moving excess, stagnant blood out of the area so it doesn’t get jammed up and cause inflammation.
You can see this in many of the muscle liniments — such as Tiger Balm — that people apply topically to inflamed areas like bruises, sprains and strains. These pain relieving liniments usually are combinations of heating herbs, such as pungent spices like cayenne, and cooling herbs, like peppermint (Mentha piperita) and camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora). When you include circulatory-enhancing herbs that are opposite in energetics, such as these heating and cooling herbs, that makes it even more disruptive and moving to stuck or congealed blood. This effect is metaphorically similar to trying to free a car that is stuck in the mud. Simply pulling or pushing it often isn’t enough. What is necessary is to rock it back and forth, picking up momentum and eventually breaking through the stuckness and getting free. In a similar fashion, antiinflammatory agents can be used to break through the stuckness of inflammation. Pain is often described in Chinese medicine as “stuck blood.”
Like I said, turmeric is famous as a warming, qi- and blood-moving antiinflammatory. It works even better if mixed with a small amount of black pepper (Piper nigrum). Black pepper serves as a synergizer and catalyst, making turmeric work even better; and in its own right, pepper is a heating, circulatory-stimulating, qi-moving medicine.
Herbal pain relief options: Prickly ash
Another herb for pain relief that is similar to turmeric and black pepper is prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum). Prickly ash bark is indicated for what is described as “torturous pain” — pain that feels like you’ve gotten stuck in barbed wire. I will get back to prickly ash in a little bit because, in addition to being a warming, qi-moving antiinflammatory herb, it also falls into the category of being an antispasmodic, making it a double-duty pain relief herb.
Not all antiinflammatory are heating like turmeric, pepper and prickly ash. Some are energetically more neutral in temperature, but are antiinflammatory nonetheless. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is a good example. Chamomile makes for a very pleasant tasting tea and is super well known as a calmative herb. It is also very useful as an antiinflammatory agent for the digestive tract, from stomach through intestines to colon. A more neutral temperature antiinflammatory herb for the lungs is mullein leaf. Besides mullein (Verbascum thapsus), ginger is also a superior antiinflammatory herb with an affinity for the lungs, and like its cousin turmeric, it too is warming in nature.
Want more information on herbal pain relief? Visit this article on the best herbs for pain relief now to learn more about herbs for pain relief.