Pain is something we have all experienced, but it’s only recently that scientists have started to uncover the differences in how individual people respond to pain.
The anticipation of pain in the brain plays a huge role in a person’s perception of a sensation, making the experience just as much a psychological as a physical one.
This is perhaps the biggest problem in chronic pain management, and why painkillers are so overused. Painkillers like opiates, ibuprofen and paracetamol also pose huge risks when taken long term, and may even modulate pain sensitivity pathways and prolong the experience of pain.
So, what can herbs offer?
How herbalists treat pain
Most of our ‘blockbuster’ analgesics - the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) and cannabis (Cannabis sativa) - have been taken away from us and made into pharmaceutical or illegal recreational drugs.
Other potent plants such as Gelsemium and Aconite are highly toxic and can only be used in tiny amounts. This leaves the herbalist a bit high and dry in terms of strong pain-relief.
However, it’s our approach to pain that makes us stand out. We focus on where the pain occurs (head, joints, menstrual, nerve etc.) and the nature of the pain (sharp, dull, throbbing, spasmodic etc.) which allows us to target and manage the pain with less heroic medicines.
Then, the skillful combination of various herbs into one formula also creates a synergy of activity combining analgesics, antinociceptives, antiinflammatories and antispasmodics, which reinforces and improves therapeutic outcomes.
Herbalists focus on the location and nature of the pain to target and manage it effectively.
Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is an analgesic and antispasmodic traditionally used for muscular and joint pain, or what we know today as fibromyalgia. It can also be used for sciatica, back pain, headaches where the scalp muscles are sore and tender, as well as the uterine or ovarian pain of endometriosis or adenomyosis.
Corydalis (Corydalis yanhusuo) is one of the most effective pain-relieving herbs in the Chinese materia medica. It is used to treat pain caused by ‘blood stagnation’ - angina, endometriosis, painful periods or ovarian cysts. It is also useful for nerve pain due to migraines, peripheral neuropathy or shingles.
Gelsemium (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a very powerful, low-dose (potentially toxic) herb, used only by well-trained clinicians. It is used for severe headaches, period pains, or nerve pain from trigeminal neuralgia or toothache. I also use gelsemium with other herbs to control severe menopausal hot flushes.
Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia erythrina) is one of our strongest herbal analgesics. It is highly useful for moderate to strong nerve pain, spasmodic pain or musculoskeletal pain. It is used mostly for severe period pain, migraines, and nerve or muscular pain in the head and neck.
Jamaican dogwood is one of our strongest herbal analgesics.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is not just “the depression herb”, although it is useful for some types of depression. Instead, it is traditionally used as a highly effective treatment for nerve pain (topically and orally), such as post-herpetic neuralgia, spinal and head injuries, peripheral neuropathy and migraines.
White Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) is used in Chinese medicine as an analgesic, antiinflammatory, antispasmodic and blood tonic. It dispels ‘liver wind’ pain, including abdominal pain, neck pain, angina, trigeminal neuralgia, migraines, fibromyalgia pain and period pain.
Antinociceptives inhibit the sensation of pain by increasing the ‘pain threshold’ or blocking the sensory neurons from detecting painful stimuli.
Ashwagandha (Withania somniferum) is a calming adaptogen that also provides antispasmodic, anxiolytic and antinociceptive activity. It is used with stronger acting herbs for fibromyalgia and back pain. As an immune herb it can also help treat autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) is a nervine and antinociceptive especially indicated for head pain. It has a very long history of use for stress headaches, migraines and nerve pains in the head or scalp.
Wood betony is especially indicated for head pain, traditionally used for stress headaches, migraines & nerve pain in the head.
Antispasmodics & anti-inflammatories
There are countless useful herbs in this category. To name a few anti-spasmodics, I use mainly Cramp bark, Chamomile, Blue Vervain and Wild Yam for muscular pain, digestive or gallbladder spasms, tension headaches and period pain.
In terms of anti-inflammatories - Boswellia, Turmeric, Gotu kola and ginger are my favourite ones. These can be used for the pain of inflammatory bowel disease, different types of arthritis, vascular disease and digestive conditions such as diverticulitis, gastritis or gastric ulcers.
Just remember, pain is a symptom - a warning that something isn’t right in the body. In my practice I help people use their symptoms to dig deeper and find out the root cause, cultivating better body awareness and overall health along the way.
Get in touch if you are looking for a different perspective on your pain.