Pain is characterized as an ailment that chronically plagues 10% of the world’s population.
This article summarizes the clinical research behind some of the most effective herbs for pain relief and management.
Table of Contents
Pain: An Overview
Pain is an uncomfortable feeling your body sends to your brain when something is wrong. Pain can be described in many different ways; common descriptors include steady throbbing, stabbing, aching, or pinching.
There are two different types of pain, acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain occurs quickly and goes away when it’s resolved.
Chronic pain is pain that has continued to occur for over three months and is usually the result of dysfunction within the body. Chronic pain is typically associated with high levels of inflammation (i.e. arthritis).
Over 100 million people in the US suffer from chronic pain syndrome and many of the conventional therapies are known to cause further problems, such as opioid addiction.
Other symptoms and issues that may arise from chronic pain include:
Researchers and healthcare practitioners are looking into natural painkillers.
Common Types of Pain:
Pain often varies from person to person and can come in many different forms. Types of pain are grouped into categories based on the location and cause of the pain.
- Nociceptive (actual tissue injury)
- Mechanical (malignant expansion)
Some of the most common areas of chronic pain are located in the lower back, joints, feet and hands, and head (headaches).
Inflammation and Pain:
Inflammation is one of the main causes of chronic pain.
For example, arthritis, one of the most prevalent painful disorders, is caused by joint inflammation.
Although short-term inflammation supports the immune system’s response to physical trauma, chronic inflammation occurs due to the body’s inability to overcome an injury or heal itself. When there is persistent inflammation in an area, the tissue can harden or scar which causes considerable physical pain.
Symptoms of inflammation that cause pain include:
- Immobility (due to stiffness)
Although there are non-addictive, pain-relieving pharmaceuticals for inflammatory pain, such as Tylenol and Motrin, people experience significant side effects from the long-term use of these medications.
Best Herbs for Pain:
Below are some of the top research-backed herbs for pain.
1. Devil’s Claw
Devil’s claw is one of the best-known herbs for pain management.
The active constituents in devil’s claw, iridoid glycosides, are thought to provide the pain-relieving effect.
There has been extensive research done on devil’s claw and its analgesic benefits to the body. These trials can be divided into three broad categories of low back, arthritis, and general musculoskeletal pain.
A. Low Back Pain
Devil’s claw is a particularly helpful herb for low back pain.
A clinical trial involving 130 individuals with chronic lower back pain saw a significant reduction in pain after taking 960mg of devil’s claw daily for 8 weeks. There were no major adverse events and it was well tolerated by participants.
Devil’s claw reduced overall pain scores in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving patients with radiating lower back pain. Participants took a dose of 4,500mg per day.
A comparative study showed that a dose of 4,500mg of devil’s claw had a similar pain-relieving effect on subjects with lower back pain as a standard NSAID.
In another comparative study, devil’s claw had similar analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects as a pharmaceutical drug called Vioxx®.
B. Arthritis Pain
A variety of studies demonstrated that devil’s claw is an effective herb for osteoarthritis of the hip or knee.
A study showed that devil’s claw extract was able to help individuals with arthritis pain, reducing their ibuprofen intake. The analgesic effects were compared to that of ibuprofen.
A comparative study found that devil’s claw had similar analgesic effects as diacerein, an analgesic drug. Participants in the devil’s claw group used less rescue medication than those in the diacerein group. Fewer adverse events were reported in the devil’s claw group than in the diacerein group.
C. General Pain
Along with reducing low back and arthritis-related pain, devil’s claw also helps reduce general pain and inflammation throughout the body.
In an open trial, 6 months of treatment with a devil’s claw supplement (3,000–9,000mg extract daily) was able to reduce general aches and pain complaints, specifically in those that had pain in large joints, the spinal column, or from arthritis. It should be noted that there were some mild GI disturbances with some of the higher doses administered.
Summary:Human clinical research indicates that devil’s claw may be one of the best herbs for alleviating low back, general, and arthritic pain.
Indian Frankincense, or boswellia, is one of the best herbs for arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
The resinous “sap” from the Boswellia serrata tree has been known to reduce inflammation and pain in people with arthritis.
Researchers believe that these pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects may be from the terpenes and triterpenic acids found in boswellia.
A recent 2019 study found that Boswellia serrata extract reduced pain symptoms in participants with osteoarthritis. This effect occurred through the extract’s ability to reduce inflammation.
A similar study involving subjects with osteoarthritis found that boswellic acid, in combination with MSM, was able to support pain-free walking as well as inflammation. The benefits of this combination continued for 4 months post-treatment.
Summary:Studies show that boswellia may be useful in reducing inflammation and pain commonly assoiciated with arthritis. Additional human studies would be beneficial.
Ginger is one of the best natural herbs for inflammation and pain relief.
Gingerol and shogaol appear to be the active constituents responsible for ginger’s anti-inflammatory effects.
A clinical trial involving patients with gonarthritis (inflammation of the knee joints) discovered that ginger extract was effective in providing pain relief to the study participants.
In a 2012 study, powdered ginger capsules taken 3x/day were able to reduce pain in participants with dysmenorrhea. The ginger was found to reduce pain severity, and duration, in the participants.
Summary:Ginger has been found to decrease pain duration and severity, although more human clinical trials are needed to confirm these findings.
Ashwagandha may be a beneficial herb for pain reduction.
One randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study involved 60 patients with knee joint pain and discomfort. Compared to the control group, ashwagandha was found to significantly reduce pain, stiffness, knee swelling, and arthritis symptoms.
A clinical study involving healthy participants discovered that supplementation with 1,000mg of ashwagandha significantly increased pain threshold and tolerance when compared to the placebo group.
Another clinical trial found that Withania somnifera supplementation helped reduce pain and symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Summary:Clinical research has found that ashwagandha may decrease pain, however, additional clinical trials would be helpful in further confirming this finding.
5. California Poppy
California poppy is a plant that has long been used as an herbal pain killer.
In an open-lab trial, the alkaloids in California poppy showed promising results for managing chronic pain and pain-related insomnia. The alkaloids studied were protopine, californidine, escholtzine, and sanguinarine.
The European Medicines Agency notes that products with 3 grams of dried herb standardized to 0.8% isoquinoline alkaloids (californidine, escholtzine, and protopine) are authorized for pain management and better sleep.
An animal trial studying neuropathic pain found that California poppy extract may be supportive for reducing acute and chronic pain in cases such as osteoarthritis and sciatic nerve pain.
It should be noted that although California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is in the same family as opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), it’s non-addictive.
Summary:Several trials indicate that California poppy may work to reduce pain and promote better sleep. Further human studies are required to verify these findings.
Lavender is an effective herbal analgesic. This pleasant-smelling herb is commonly administered via aromatherapy.
Researchers attribute this pain-relieving effect to lavender’s two primary terpenes, linalool and linalyl acetate.
A study found that lavender essence aromatherapy is effective and safe for reducing labor pain in women undergoing Cesarean sections. There were reports of a significant reduction in pain perception for those that received the lavender therapy.
The topical use of lavender oil essence was used to reduce pain in a study involving women who underwent an episiotomy. The lavender essence was significantly more effective than the control in managing discomfort 4-hours after the episiotomy.
In a clinical trial, an aromatic oil massage was able to reduce pain in subjects with primary dysmenorrhea. The aromatic oil included a blend of lavender, marjoram, and clary sage diluted in an unscented cream.
Summary:Whether applied topically or through aromatherapy, lavender has been shown to possess pain-relieving properties.
Research shows that hops may be a helpful herb for pain relief.
A study using an isolated active constituent from Humulus lupulus (nTHIAAs – Tetrahydro iso-α acids) found that it was able to reduce pain in adults with chronic joint pain. Some participants noticed pain relief just 2 weeks after starting treatment.
The use of hops extract in an animal study reduced the onset of the body’s pain response. This effect appears to be short-term as the results occurred when mice were given the extract 30-60 mins before the test, but not 120 mins before the test.
In another animal trial, hops extract was helpful for targeting inflammatory pain and disorders. The extract reduced inflammation caused by external agents.
Summary:According to research, hops may be useful as an herb for reducing pain. Human clinical studies are needed to confirm this finding.
8. Wild Lettuce
Wild lettuce has been used traditionally for hundreds of years as a natural pain reliever.
Since the white sap or “latex” contains analgesic effects and resembles the sap from the poppy, wild lettuce is sometimes called “opium lettuce.”
In an animal study, various wild lettuce extracts were found to have analgesic effects on mice. The aerial parts extract prolonged the onset of a pain response by 119.7% while the roots extract prolonged the onset of a pain response by 103.3%.
The active constituents lactucin and lactucopicrin in wild lettuce were found to have an analgesic effect on mice. 30mg of wild lettuce’s phytochemicals had the same pain-relieving effects as 60mg of ibuprofen.
The well-known herbalist, David Hoffmann, noted that wild lettuce can be an effective analgesic for those with rheumatism muscle pains, dysmenorrhea, and colic pains.
Summary:Wild lettuce has been found to reduce and prolong the onset of pain. Human trials are needed to verify these findings.
9. Jamaican Dogwood
Jamaican dogwood bark is a traditional medicine that’s said to be one of the best herbs for nerve pain.
Much of Jamaican dogwood’s analgesic claims come from its traditional usage – this herb has been minimally studied by modern researchers.
Although there isn’t much modern research, there is a plethora of historical claims that dub Jamaican dogwood as a pain reliever. It was used often by Eclectic physicians who mention:
“In susceptible patients, it will control pain and relieve general distress. It is distinctly a nerve sedative, and overcomes nervous excitability and also reflex irritability. It is an antispasmodic of much power in mild cases.”
Summary:According to traditional usage, Jamaican dogwood may help relieve nerve pain. Human clinical research is required to confirm this finding.
Turmeric is another popular herb for inflammation and pain relief.
Curcumin, a phytochemical found in turmeric, has been shown to reduce inflammation.
As noted earlier, chronically high levels of inflammation are tied with various pain-inducing disorders.
In a clinical trial, researchers found that turmeric has the ability to support pain in those with knee osteoarthritis. The reduction of pain seemed to be attributed to turmeric’s ability to inhibit the body’s inflammatory response.
Summary:Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric may be one of the best herbs for reducing pain.
Chronic pain can have serious negative effects on one’s health.
Using natural herbs for pain relief may help reduce the risk of opioid-related issues.
Clinical research shows that the herbs listed above may be the most supportive in reducing pain.
As with all supplements, it is highly recommended to consult a health care practitioner when considering changes to your daily routine.
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