Dear EarthTalk: Are there safe herbal alternatives to common pain and headache medications?
—Dylan Boehlert, Spokane, WA
From lower back problems and migraines to the stings of cuts, bruises and more serious injuries, persistent pain sends most of us running to the doctor—and then the pharmacist—for a quick fix. Often that relief comes in the form of a potent pain pill, such as OxyContin or Percocet. But those drugs exact a price, over and above their financial cost, to work their magic. For one, they can be highly addictive. And many have serious side effects ranging from drowsiness to ulcers to kidney and liver damage.
New research shows that many of these powerful pharmaceuticals are also no friends to the environment. When they are eliminated from our bodies and flushed down the toilet, they make their way into our waterways and dissolve into microscopic particles. Fish and wildlife living in and near streams polluted by these compounds can develop health problems. So can human beings who drink the water from public water supplies whose treatment methods are not sophisticated enough to screen out the particles.
Given those risks, millions of American families have turned to herbal pain remedies. Pain relief patches are among the hot new products on display at natural foods markets. Some, such as the Tiger Balm patch, contain the herbs camphor and oil of clove, which are absorbed through the skin. These herbs, originally used in Chinese medicine, have anti-inflammatory properties to ease back pain and muscle aches.
Arnica, also known as “leopard’s bane,” is especially effective in reducing pain from arthritis, burns, ulcers and eczema, and is also used to treat acne. It has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities that reduce pain and swelling and accelerate wound healing. According to the American Botanical Council, arnica is one of the most popular herbs used by homeopathic practitioners for pain.
Meanwhile, several research studies have shown that capsaicin, an extract of cayenne pepper, can offer significant arthritis pain relief when used as a topical cream. Turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory and immune booster, is also well known as a pain reliever for arthritis pain. And feverfew is a useful herb for reducing migraine headache pain. Herbalists have relied on it since the Middle Ages.
Since herbal remedies are not as strictly regulated as conventional drugs, it is important to consult a reputable naturopath or homeopath before using them. For example, despite its benefits, arnica can raise blood pressure and therefore may be undesirable for some people. Also, research shows a wide variation in purity and quality among the herbal offerings on the market, so it is also important to choose a reputable manufacturer. Websites such as MotherNature.com and MedicinePlants.com are good sources, as are the herb and supplement sections in Wild Oats, Whole Foods and other natural foods markets.
Regardless of where you obtain herbal medicines, be aware that many herbs can interact with other medicines, so you should check with your medical doctor before using them. Also, as with conventional medicines, it may also be unwise to take herbal treatments if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.