When people experience a minor headache, muscle tension or other pain, they readily reach for over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen. But while these medications may work for some people, in others, the side effects—ranging from nausea to heart complications—may outweigh the relief. You may find the relief you need from a variety of natural painkillers instead.
Natural pain treatments — like herbal medicine, in which parts of a plant are used medicinally to treat health problems — is an increasingly popular way to manage pain as well.
Many herbs and spices can treat inflammation and other related conditions. At the root of many pain-causing conditions such as arthritis, back pain, and tendonitis is inflammation, a natural immune response to infection or injury. People have used essential oils, herbs, and alternative therapies as natural pain relievers for hundreds of years. These plant-based options fall under a category of treatment known as alternative medicine, which also includes acupuncture, yoga, Reiki, and other practices.
Ibuprofen, aspirin, and other NSAIDs damage your gut lining. They affect your gut bacteria, too. A study of regular users found that different NSAIDs caused different changes in gut bacteria Over the counter pain pills can also damage your heart — so much so that the FDA issued a long warning back in 2005, and strengthened the warning in 2015. Prescription medications may be addictive and have even more adverse effects.
Remember, pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong. It may be temporary, as with a strained muscle. But pain can also mean you have a serious health problem that needs professional medical evaluation.
Types of Pain
Pain is generally considered to be a negative side effect, a useless and unpleasant symptom that we need to get rid of as soon as possible. But it has a beneficial effect that often goes unrecognized. Pain gives the body an imperative, energetic signal that it has a serious problem it needs to investigate. It triggers the mobilization of the body’s defense mechanisms and the sending of “defenders” to the site of the attack. Removing the pain amounts to turning off the alarm signal. So while it is of course essential to mitigate severe pain, suppressing pain entirely can be counterproductive.
Acute pain is of short duration but it gradually resolves as the injured tissues heal. This type of pain can be mild and last just a moment, or it might be severe and last for weeks or months. From stubbed toes and scrapes to headaches and stomachaches, we all experience acute pain.
Chronic pain, in contrast, may be considered a disease state. It is pain that outlasts the normal time of healing if associated with a disease or injury. Chronic pain may arise from psychological states, serves no biologic purpose, and has no recognizable end-point.¹ If pain lasts more than three months, it is considered chronic or persistent pain, and you may require help from your provider to understand the cause and determine treatment. Chronic pain affects about 1 in 5 people in the U.S.
Both acute and chronic pain can be debilitating, and both can affect and be affected by a person’s state of mind. But the nature of chronic pain — the fact that it’s ongoing and in some cases seems almost constant — makes the person who has it more susceptible to psychological consequences such as depression and anxiety.²
Natural Pain Management
As people began to grow and gather herbs, they learned, through experience, trial-and-error, and plain old luck, which plants could be useful and which ought to be avoided. To help them understand the complexities of their world, primitive people came up with a pantheon of gods, spirits, and supernatural forces, many of which were directly tied to the natural world.
In time, people around the world began to realize that sickness and disease (or health and vitality, for that matter) were created by natural and not supernatural processes. At that point, the healing profession split into separate factions, with the physician on one side and the priest on the other. In the early nineteenth century, scientists began extracting and modifying the active ingredients from plants and transforming those ingredients into synthetic drugs.
Gradually, medicine—and popular tastes—shifted from herbals to pharmaceuticals. In 1820, the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) published its first standards compendium, then consisting of only natural medicines. But things were changing, and in the United States and many other Western countries, herbal medicine was quickly moving from its place as the primary health care system to a type of supplemental care.
Many countries, including India and Germany, now consider many herbs to be medicines (and therefore regulate them as drugs). According to the latest report from the World Health Organization (WHO), ninety-two countries have an official registration system for herbal medicines, and seventeen of them have more than 1,000 herbal medicines registered.
Many health care professionals, including naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda (the ancient system of health care of India), use herbs and herbal formulations. Herbs also play a part in other types of natural health care, including aromatherapy and homeopathy.
From acupuncture, yoga, Reiki, and other practices, you may be surprised by what might help you feel better. The key to effective all-natural pain relief is to take the time to uncover the underlying cause of your pain and not just mask the symptoms with pain medication.
- Joint Pain
- Back pain
- Lower back pain and sciatica
- Neck pain
- Knee pain
- Shoulder pain
- Elbow pain
- Hip pain
- Torn ligaments
- Elbow pain
- Plantar fasciitis
- Disc problems
- And more
The source of your pain will determine which natural remedy will be most effective. If you have been living with pain for an extended period of time and have tried natural remedies the issue may not be with the remedy but with the intended use. Knowing the active pain-fighting ingredient within each remedy will matter the most when using the natural route.
Analgesics: Natural Pain Relief
An analgesic is a painkiller (the word analgesia comes from the Greek words an, meaning “without,” and algia, or “pain”). Herbal analgesics are considered superior to pharmaceutical painkillers such as ibuprofen because they don’t carry the same side effects. Herbal pain remedies often work as well as pharmaceuticals, and many are used topically (applied to the skin instead of being ingested), which makes their effects more targeted.
Popular herbal painkillers:
- Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
- Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
- Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)
- Willow (Salix alba)
An anti-inflammatory agent is anything that reduces inflammation—redness, tenderness, and swelling (or edema)—in the tissues. Anti-inflammatories are often effective analgesics as well, since inflammation frequently produces pain along with swelling.
The first choice in over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines for most Americans is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID. Most NSAIDs work by inhibiting enzymes (two types of cyclooxygenase enzymes, called COX-1 and COX-2) that produce pain and inflammation.
Although it’s the source of many health problems, inflammation can actually be a good thing—it’s the body’s way of protecting itself from injury or infection. Problems start when inflammation gets out of hand or goes on for too long. Chronic inflammation can cause swelling and discomfort that never go away and can damage cartilage, bone, and other tissue
In many cases, herbal anti-inflammatories provide the same kind of relief as pharmaceuticals—without the scary side effects. Here are some of the best-known herbal anti-inflammatories:
- Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)
- Sage (Salvia officinalis, S. lavandulaefolia)
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Tea (Camellia sinensis)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Herbs are, without question, the first drugs that humans have ever had. And over the centuries, our herbal pharmacy has expanded to include thousands of medicinal plants, each containing a blend of constituents that we’re only now beginning to understand.
In recent years, scientists have been deconstructing herbs to determine the chemical compounds—called phytochemicals—behind their actions. For example, researchers have determined that garlic (Allium sativum) owes much of its antibacterial and cholesterol-lowering action to a phyto-chemical called allicin. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) apparently gets its stomach-settling powers from two chemicals, 6-gingerol and gingerdione. And cayenne peppers (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens) contain capsaicin, which dulls pain and produces a warming sensation.
Curcumin and Inflammatory Pain
The efforts undertaken by the body to protect itself against an irritating or aggressive agent (such as a germ or poison) are often accompanied by painful and annoying inflammation. The vast majority of patients would gladly do without this problem. However, inflammation does not merely accompany the body’s defensive reactions; it is itself part of the body’s defense system.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are the bestselling pharmaceutical products on the market. Not only are the number of inflammatory diseases increasing, but they afflict more and more people with ever-increasing severity. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and cortisone are powerful and effective. They are accompanied by many contraindications, though, which makes their use potentially hazardous.
Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric, the bright orange spice used in Indian food and curries. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory food and has been studied for its beneficial effects on the pain of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis³ and as an anti-inflammatory agent in neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, autoimmune and neoplastic diseases.
Inflammatory pains are usually⁴:
- chest pain
- abdominal pain
- joint pain
Curcumin anti-inflammatory action appears to help improve rheumatoid arthritis, post-operative inflammation, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and stomach ulcers.
Capsaicin comes from hot chili peppers and has a long history of use in the practice of natural medicine. Capsaicin is used in medicated creams and lotions to relieve muscle or joint pain. Capsaicin used on the body causes a sensation of heat that activates certain nerve cells. With regular use of capsaicin, this heating effect reduces the amount of substance P, a chemical that acts as a pain messenger in the body.
Once the capsaicin is extracted from the pepper, it can be added to creams, gels, and even patches for use as a pain-relief treatment.
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Muscle pain
Researchers in a 2015 study found that lavender essential oil can be an effective analgesic and anti-inflammatory. Lavender is commonly used for anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Traditionally, the essential oil of lavender was applied externally to treat joint pain, muscle aches, and a variety of skin conditions, including insect stings, acne, eczema, and burns.
It is also used for depression, dementia, pain after surgery, and many other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support many of these uses. Lavender essential oil was also inhaled to relieve headaches, anxiety, and stress.
When diluted lavender essential oil was applied topically during one test, it provided pain relief comparable to that of the prescription medication tramadol.
Because peppermint oil has analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties, it not only can relieve pain and inflammation but can also calm the spasms that cause muscle cramps. The most active components of Peppermint essential oil are Menthol and Menthone, which are known to reduce pain and to invigorate, energize, and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, respectively.⁵
People often use diluted peppermint essential oil as a topical treatment, meaning that they rub diluted oil into the area that feels achy or painful.
Other Herbal Pain Killers
These herbs offer similar (if not better) pain relief than traditional OTC medications:
- Arnica (Arnica montana) In a recent study, topical arnica outperformed both topical ibuprofen and oral acetaminophen in relieving joint pain and stiffness. Arnica has also been proven effective at treating sore muscles and bruises.
- Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) Barberry works as both an internal and external painkiller. It’s also an effective topical antimicrobial.
- Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) Applied to a sore spot, cayenne is a potent painkiller (its key constituent, capsaicin, is used in many OTC muscle and joint rubs and is approved by the FDA as a topical analgesic). Topical cayenne has also been shown to relieve and even prevent headaches.
- Clove (Syzygium aromaticum) Clove oil works as a topical pain reliever and anesthetic (and also fights bad breath and cavities, thanks to its antibacterial components). It’s especially helpful after dental work, and research shows it fights pain as well as the OTC pharmaceutical benzocaine. Clove oil also soothes cold and canker sores and helps kill infectious microbes.
- Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) An aptly named plant, cramp bark is a classic herbal remedy for muscle cramps (it’s also a great headache remedy). Recent research shows it’s also effective against spasmodic back pain.
- Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) Devil’s claw has been used for generations in South Africa to treat pain and inflammation. Recent research has shown it’s particularly effective against back pain.
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) Best known as a migraine remedy, feverfew is a staple of Western herbal medicine and a reliable remedy for all kinds of headaches (plus fevers and other kinds of inflammation
When a person takes traditional pain relief medication as prescribed, with guidance from a doctor, it is a safe and effective way to manage pain.
Natural pain relievers, however, offer an alternative for people who want to avoid the long-term side effects of pain relief medication. Have you tried using any natural pain killers consistently? What works for you?