It’s not always the big things that get you down. Sometimes, it’s the small, everyday pains—the low-grade headache, the nagging lower back twinge, the aching joints—that really wear on your psyche. Long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause bleeding ulcers, liver damage, and increased risk of heart disease. A better option: treating pain naturally, with herbs and supplements that fight inflammation, soothe tissue damage, and block pain signals. Turn the page for five ailments that can be eased with drug-free remedies.
1 Arthritis. Marked by inflamed joints accompanied by pain, swelling, and loss of function, arthritis can be crippling. There are two main types: rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease that affects the tissue covering the joints, and osteoarthritis, which is characterized by wear and tear of the joints.
Drug-free relief: Some studies have suggested that MSM—a natural compound derived from sulfur—is especially effective at easing osteoarthritis of the knee. MSM seems to work better when combined with glucosamine, a compound derived from shellfish. Other studies have found that SAM-e, a compound usually used for mood stability, can ease arthritis pain as well as NSAIDS such as ibuprofen. Take SAMe between meals.
2 Back pain is the second most common reason people visit their doctors, right after respiratory illness. It’s difficult to treat, mainly because there are so many possible causes, ranging from muscle strains to herniated discs. Pressure on the nerves in the spinal column can also be caused by osteoporosis or spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column). Poor posture, or even sitting for long periods of time, can also cause nagging back pain.
Drug-free relief: Standardized extracts of anti-inflammatory herbs, such as turmeric, ginger, and holy basil, are excellent long-term treatments for chronic back pain. In some studies, the active ingredient in turmeric, called curcumin, was found to be as effective in treating pain as NSAIDs. Ginger also helps ease lower back pain, especially when combined with turmeric. In other studies, devil’s claw, a traditional African herb, lessened back pain as effectively as prescription medications.
In addition to herbs and supplements, physical interventions often help. Adjust your desk at work, invest in an ergonomic chair, examine and correct your posture, and try a decompression belt to provide gentle traction and relieve pressure. Core strengthening is probably the most important direct treatment and preventive strategy you can do, so talk with a physical therapist about core strengthening exercises.
3 Headaches can be as difficult to treat as back pain. They also have many causes, ranging from jaw tension to stress, food sensitivities, and dehydration. The most common types include tension headaches, cluster headaches—marked by cyclical patterns of intensely painful headaches—and migraines, which are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and noise. All three are marked by overactivity of pain-sensitive areas in the head.
Drug-free relief: A standardized extract of butterbur, a member of the daisy family that’s traditionally used to treat pain and other ailments, is one of the most effective natural remedies for migraines. In one study, butterbur extract reduced the number and severity of migraines by 50 percent. Because butterbur contains naturally occurring alkaloids that can damage the liver, use only products marked “PA free,” meaning the harmful pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been removed. Feverfew, a member of the sunflower family, is another herb that’s extremely effective for migraines. In some studies, feverfew extract significantly reduced migraine frequency and intensity. White willow bark, chemically related to aspirin, has long been used to relieve pain and is effective for cluster and tension headaches.
4 Menstrual cramps. Uterine contractions from shedding the uterine lining cause cramping and pain in the back and abdomen for many women each month. This is called “primary dysmenorrhea.” More rarely, conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can cause cramping, known as “secondary dysmenorrhea.” While these more serious issues require medical attention, most menstrual cramps can be safely treated at home.
Drug-free relief: Cramp bark, from a shrub native to Europe and Asia, contains antispasmodic oils that can ease uterine contractions. It’s also an effective muscle relaxant that helps ease back pain. Black haw, a close cousin of cramp bark, also relaxes uterine contractions and is historically used when cramps are accompanied by severe lower-back pain. The omega-3 fat EPA, a well known anti-inflammatory, can also relieve some kinds of period pain. In a recent study, omega-3 fats reduced the intensity of pain during menstruation.
5 Muscle pain. Sprains, strains, bruising, and aches are a common result of overusing muscles or minor injuries that occur during exercise. Chronic stress can also cause muscle aches and pains, usually in a localized region. Muscle pain that’s more systemic (felt throughout the body) is more often related to fibromyalgia, infection, or side effects from drugs, especially statins used to lower cholesterol.
Drug-free relief: Arnica, from a flowering plant native to Europe, works almost immediately to relieve localized pain and swelling. It’s used both internally, as a homeopathic formula, and topically, in creams and gels. Use both simultaneously for the best results. Bromelain, derived from pineapple enzymes, works as an anti-inflammatory to relieve muscle pain and swelling. Other enzymes, especially proteolytic enzymes, can also relieve muscle inflammation. Bromelain must be taken between meals. Magnesium is a safe, effective muscle relaxant that’s helpful in treating both sports injuries and muscle pain from chronic stress. SAM-e is also helpful in treating fibromyalgia.
An Integrative Doctor’s Approach to Pain
Pain is a warning sign—even painful menstrual cramps can indicate congestion in the pelvic area. So when treating pain, it’s critical to address the underlying causes. Inflammation, poor circulation, and dehydration are primary culprits in acute and chronic pain, so nutrients, herbs, and foods that hydrate, circulate, and cool irritated tissue can be very effective. I recommend omega-3 oils, natural enzymes, honokiol extract from magnolia bark, modified citrus pectin, and formulas such as a well-researched Tibetan herbal formula, along with a low-glycemic diet to control chronic inflammation.
Possible mechanical problems in the musculoskeletal system also need to be examined, and can be relieved with exercises or manual and physical therapies. One very effective method is Craniosacral therapy, which uses massage and gentle adjustments to remove inflammatory proteins and create better circulation, while relaxing the pain response. Another approach is to focus on an area of the body that is pain-free. Place your attention on that area, massage the area, and apply pressure. What you are doing is allowing the localized pain in one area of the body to dissipate. This proven approach is also one reason why acupuncture can be so effective against pain. —Isaac Eliaz, MD, LAc (dreliaz.org)
Natural Medicine Chest
15 ways to stay pain-free
Stock your medicine chest with these drug-free remedies for pain and inflammation: