Natural Foods Merchandiser
Pain, pain go away

Pain, pain go away

More than 75 million Americans live with serious pain, according to the American Academy of Pain Management in Sonora, Calif.; 50 million suffer chronic pain, and 25 million have acute pain.

Americans are hurting. More than 75 million Americans live with serious pain, according to the American Academy of Pain Management in Sonora, Calif.; 50 million suffer chronic pain, and 25 million have acute pain. Yet despite its prevalence, treating pain is often frustrating for both health care providers and patients because there are few effective conventional therapies, and most come with side effects. It's no surprise, then, that many people turn to herbs and supplements to ease discomfort and promote healing.

Pain can derive from previous illness or trauma, or from underlying causes, such as arthritis or a pinched nerve. But sometimes there is no obvious source of the pain. People can mistakenly attribute pain to recent activity rather than serious underlying causes. They may assume shoulder aches are caused by recent sports or hard work because they don't know that such aches may be symptomatic of cardiac problems or indicate gastric cancer.

Conventional therapies typically include steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. NSAIDs work by inhibiting cyclooxygenase-1 and -2 enzymes, which cause inflammation. Long-term use of NSAIDs, however, can produce undesirable side effects, including gastrointestinal disturbances and peptic ulcers, and can even cause kidney or liver damage. Steroids are strong anti-inflammatories that relieve pain quickly, but do so in a way that decreases white blood cell accumulation at the injury site, thereby slowing healing.

When consumers become savvy about the downside of NSAIDs, they may seek natural alternatives. Fortunately, there are herbs and supplements that hold promise as chronic pain relievers. Several supplements have even been shown to promote tissue repair in addition to easing pain.

"Trying a relatively natural supplement is usually not a problem unless its active ingredients are contraindicated ... or when immediate professional evaluation is needed because pain is persistent, severe or unusual, or occurs with other symptoms," says Steven Richeimer, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based physician who is board-certified in pain management, psychiatry and anesthesia.

Herbs used in pain treatment work similarly to NSAIDs without the side effects. "Turmeric is a really good anti-inflammatory with few side effects, and it doesn't cause the gastric ulceration that aspirin does," says Jill Hoppe, a Boulder, Colo.-based certified nutritional herbalist. In a double-blind study, arthritis patients given turmeric reported decreased inflammation and pain. The researchers attributed the effect to curcumin, turmeric's active constituent (Carcinogensis, 1999). Hoppe recommends 400 mg daily of turmeric to reduce pain from swelling or inflammation. Ginger and boswellia also can be taken to reduce pain from inflammation, according to Hoppe.

She advises chamomile as a mild anti-inflammatory. "Turmeric and ginger are both hot stimulating herbs that may not be right for everyone. Chamomile would be good for someone with very mild inflammation or someone who wants to use it for a long time." She says chamomile is effective either as a poultice or a tea.

Cayenne, in the form of capsaicin ointment, can be used topically for pain. Varro Tyler, Ph.D., author of Tyler's Honest Herbal (Haworth Press, 1999), writes that capsaicin depletes "substance P, the compound mediating the transmission of pain impulses."

Although herbs can help relieve pain, it is important to look at the underlying causes of discomfort. "The biggest danger with the holistic health industry is marketing like Western medicine and targeting symptoms. You cover up problems, but the pathology worsens," says Randy Martin Ph.D., OMD, based in Los Angeles.

Homeopathy, to cite one treatment modality, looks beyond treating the symptoms in pain treatment. "People want to get rid of pain as soon as possible; what we do pharmacologically with pain killers is akin to unscrewing the oil light in your car," says Dana Ullman, homeopathic doctor and author of Homeopathy from A to Z (Hay House Lifestyles, 1999) and Essential Homeopathy (New World Library, 2002.) "In homeopathy, we don't treat symptoms, we treat syndromes." Homeopathic remedies targeted for specific conditions naturally stimulate the body to heal itself so that less pain is felt, according to Ullman.

Natural remedies typically don't relieve pain as quickly as conventional medications do, but sticking with them can pay off in reduced dependency on drugs that not only do little to heal the source of pain.

Wendy Lee Bonifazi, R.N., APR, is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based writer.

Additional reporting by Dena Nishek and Anna Soref.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 28, 31

Healing Supplements

Once inflammation and pain are under control, it is time to focus on rebuilding and repairing. Chondroitin, glucosamine and SAMe are anti-inflammatory agents that relieve pain and appear to protect joints from damage by promoting tissue repair.

Chondroitin is a naturally occurring constituent of cartilage. Researchers suspect it provides cartilage with the necessary elements to rebuild while blocking enzymes that lead to joint deterioration (Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 1998).

Glucosamine, a key constituent in cartilage building, also promotes cartilage repair while alleviating pain. Relief often persists after supplementation stops, suggesting the compound has contributed to healing. Researchers have found glucosamine to be as effective as low doses of NSAIDs (Osteoarthritis and Cartilage,1994).

SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine) participates in cartilage synthesis. In studies using oral doses, researchers found it to be as effective as standard anti-inflammatories (American Journal of Medicine, 1987). SAMe can interact with some prescription drugs.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 31

Pick Your Poultice

Herbs can be applied topically to soothe pain, reduce swelling and promote healing. Medical herbalist Kathleen Duffy, based in Chicopee, Mass., recommends the following externally administered herbs to relieve pain:

  • Baths—Epsom salts baths or baths with valerian or skullcap extracts are helpful for aches and injuries.
  • Cool or warm compresses—saturate a cloth in a strong herbal tea made from essential oils or dried herbs, cover with plastic wrap and apply. For headaches, Duffy recommends chamomile, lavender, peppermint, spearmint or sweet marjoram; for menstrual cramps, ginger; and for diaper rash, chamomile.
  • Poultices—combine warm, moist herbs, such as chamomile, white willow, peppermint, skullcap, meadow sweet or valerian, in a binder of powdered oatmeal, slippery elm or flaxseed, and apply to injury site.
  • Semi-poultices—use a cloth compress filled with ground herbs for poultice benefits without the mess. Try St. John's wort for nerve pain.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 31

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