Many people, to relieve pain and treat existing illness, use complementary therapies. Herbal medicine use is widespread. A review of popular herbal remedies and nutritional supplements can help those with chronic pain make informed decisions about healthcare options for pain control. Research is lacking for many preparations, relying on tradition, but there is some scientific data available about the safety and effectiveness of the most popular remedies.
Willow Bark – The effect of willow bark is short term, but it’s been shown to be effective for pain relief. The most popular use is for headache, bursitis, tendonitis, low back pain and fever. A Cochrane review of willow bark revealed inconsistent results for those with low back pain or osteoarthritis, but short-term improvement in other types of pain was obtained combined with traditional rescue medication.
Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens) – Fibromyalgia patients received capsaicin plasters to measure the potential benefit. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in cayenne. Forty-five patients were compared with patients who received placebo plasters. Improvements were seen in muscle soreness with significant improvements in grip strength. A Cochrane review found results that were more favorable for pain relief in three trials.
Devil's claw – One study shows that 50 patients who received devil’s claw for three weeks experienced significantly more pain relief than those who received a placebo. Pain reduction and increased mobility was also seen in another trial involving 89 patients with osteoarthritis who were treated for two months.
Phytodolor has been found to be effective for pain of rheumatoid diseases, including osteoarthritis. Six trials were performed, and showed significant reduction in pain. The conclusion was that Phytodolor is as good for pain relief as NSAID’s without the side effects.
Gamma-linolenic acid/GLA)containing herbs – Evening Primrose Oil, Blackcurrant seed oil, borage and sunflower seed oil have all been shown to reduce painful conditions.
Extract of avocado and soya bean (avocado/soybean unsaponifiables - ASU) - ASU was studied for six months in patients with hip and knee osteoarthritis, and was found to be an effective treatment. The study participants favored the use of ASU over NSAID’s (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Improvement in overall function was observed. Adding ASU for pain control, in conjunction with NSAID’s was also seen.
Fish oil –Several studies have shown that fish oil can treat inflammation associated with pain in rheumatoid arthritis. Flax seed oil and alpha-linolenic acid, precursors of Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have not yielded the same results.
Selenium - 20 or 1000 mcg selenium, taken orally for 4 weeks, provided positive results in a group of 20 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, including clinical outcome and immune response.
S-Adenosyl Methionine (SAMe) – 800mg. of SAMe was better than a placebo for pain relief of fibromyalgia.
Other natural supplements such as ginger boswellia (Boswellia serrata), pine bark and turmeric have demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity in research, assisting with chronic pain management.
Unfortunately, traditional medicine can cause intolerable side effects. Choices become limited. The take home message is there may be safe and effective alternatives to traditional medication, some better supported through studies than others. It’s important to discuss options with your healthcare provider before engaging in any alternative treatment. Many medications interact with each other to produce side effects or interfere with absorption of prescription medications.
You should always obtain information about drug interactions between nutritional supplements and herbs from your pharmacist or physician. Remember that herbal medicines and nutritional supplements are unregulated, it’s important to seek out quality ingredients – not always an easy task.