To complement “A Foundation of Health: Supplements for Self-Care” in the September 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine. Summary: Several herbs have shown promise for the treatment of chronic pain, without the side effects that can accompany drug therapy.
Pain is a universal experience. It is one of the few human experiences we all know and recognize. Whether it is the burning sensation after touching something red-hot, the prick of something sharp piercing your skin or the dull ache above your brow after a long, stressful day, we recognize pain immediately.
In its most harmless form, pain is a warning signal that something isn’t right—for example, the cue that we should pull our hand away from the hot stove. Without pain we wouldn’t get very far. It is a vital protective sense, and we need it to survive. Without the ability to sense painful stimuli, we would continue to injure ourselves unknowingly.
In its worst manifestation, pain deprives us of physical and emotional well-being and disrupts every facet of life. But that doesn’t mean occasional pain is an inevitable part of the aging process. As we get older, we don’t have to expect to live our lives in pain.
Not just inflammation
While pain and inflammation are commonly found together, they are not always associated with one other. Furthermore, inflammation is not always the root cause of pain.
Take, for instance, the traditional Chinese perspective on pain. In traditional Chinese medicine, pain can be caused by an imbalance in the flow of qi—the life force—and the flow of blood. If either element becomes stagnant or obstructed, the organs become deprived of vital oxygen and nutrients and pain manifests as a result. From this perspective, warming the body can re-establish the free flow of qi and blood.
Many herbs have a warming action on the body, from turmeric to the Chinese formula known as two marvels powder, which comprises huang bai (Phellodendron amurense) and cang zhu (Atractylodes lancea). The logic behind the use of warming herbs is the same thought process behind warming up your car on a cold winter morning before you drive off. Warming the engine helps oil move through the engine more effectively. The same goes for these herbs, except the engine is your body.
Your brain on pain
People tend to forget the fierce bond pain has with the brain and emotions. Pain is a dynamic physical and emotional response that involves our sensory nerves and the emotional center of the brain.
The perception of pain is shaped by brain pathways that filter the information coming from the sensory nerves. There are two separate systems that filter the information. One determines the location, intensity and characteristics of the pain; the other attaches emotions to the pain. Attach a positive emotion and the pain will lessen; attach a negative emotion and the pain increases.
Pain-relieving herbs to the rescue
Our emotional health is directly related to stress levels and the way we cope with stress. One way to approach pain is to modulate the stress response and protect the body against the negative effects of stress. There are numerous studies to show that increased and repeated stress can actually make pain worse.
This is where herbs called adaptogens can play a vital role in managing pain. These specialized herbs, such as Ashwagandha, Panax ginseng and Schisandra chinensis, have the ability to help your brain and body adapt to stress. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has its roots in ayurvedic medicine, where it is used to prolong life, stimulate the mind and enhance vigor; recently, this herb has been studied as a potential treatment for cancer-related fatigue (Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2013). Panax ginseng can help boost your immune system and enhance circulation. Schisandra chinensis, commonly known at five-flavor berry, “increases endurance and accuracy of movement, mental performance and working capacity, and generates alterations in the basal levels of nitric oxide and cortisol … with subsequent effects on the blood cells, vessels and [central nervous system],” according to authors of a 2008 research overview on the herb in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
We can also train our brains to filter out certain information. The brain has two choices to make when presented with a physical pain signal. Choice 1: “That’s an interesting sensation; increase the volume on that information and pay more attention.” Choice 2: “We don’t need to pay attention to that pain; turn the volume down.”
Pain-relieving herbs such as Corydalis yanhusuo help decrease the volume on pain signals and allow you to focus on the task at hand instead of the pain. Unlike conventional narcotic painkillers, Corydalis is not addictive and does not carry the inherent dangers of morphine-derived painkillers. Research studies, including a 2004 study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, support Corydalis’ effectiveness in helping reduce pain.
(Self-treatment with herbal products should not take the place of treatment by a health care provider; as with any product, you should contact your health care provider if you have questions about potential interactions with drugs you take, or contraindications for health conditions you have. You should also contact your physician immediately if you experience any side effects, or if pain gets worse or does not improve.)
Take the whole-body approach
Human beings are not machines—and pain isn’t just a mechanical response. The fluid dynamics of stress, emotional health and other issues such as inflammation all contribute to our perceptions of the presence of pain.
If you choose an herbal approach to managing pain, it should involve support for both body and mind to achieve the greatest results.
About the Author
Stacey Littlefield is product formulator and research director at Redd Remedies, a company that specializes in herbal formulas focused on delivering symptomatic relief today and core issue balance for a healthy tomorrow. She is passionate about natural medicines and a firm believer in utilizing nutritious food to improve health. Littlefield wrote “A Foundation of Health: Supplements for Self-Care” for MASSAGE Magazine’s September 2015 issue.