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Easing Pain, Naturally

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Drug-free, natural remedies for pain

Just about nobody likes to be in pain. That may be why there are so many drugs out there nowadays that effectively treat it, and why we so consistently seek them out.

While synthetic analgesics like opioids, NSAIDs, and acetaminophen can be effective in quieting pain, these drugs also have a dark side. In this blog post we examine of the reasons why cutting back on pharmaceutical analgesics may be a good idea, and explore some drug-free alternatives for easing pain.

What’s so bad about opioid medications?

It’s normal to receive a prescription for an opioid medication like oxycodone or hydrocodone after a surgery. These narcotic analgesics dull the pain that often comes with medical procedures and injuries, and can help us get through the convalescent period more comfortably. Unfortunately, however, opioid drugs come with side effects like constipation and drowsiness, and they are also very addictive.

In fact, taking opioid drugs for as little as five days can lead to drug dependency,[1] and 75% of heroin users in treatment in 2014 stated that their opioid addiction began with a legal prescription for painkillers.[2] People undergoing both minor procedures and major operations are statistically at a higher risk of developing opioid addiction. In fact, the authors of one retrospective study on the topic conclude: “New persistent opioid use represents a common but previously underappreciated surgical complication that warrants increased awareness.”[3]

Ok, so I’ll just take some ibuprofen.

Although over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications are generally safer than opioid drugs, they also come with some health risks – especially when used on a regular basis.

Acetaminophen is the leading cause of both acute liver injury and acute liver failure in the developed world.

All non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and aspirin in particular, can cause stomach ulcers with repeated use.[4] Aspirin is also a blood thinner, which can complicate situations in which a person is already losing blood, as with surgical wounds or during a woman’s menstrual period.[5] Ibuprofen, another NSAID, can be rough on the kidneys,[6] and acetaminophen (also known as Paracetamol, and sold in the U.S. under the brand name Tylenol®) is notoriously harmful to the liver.[7] In fact, acetaminophen is the leading cause of both acute liver injury and acute liver failure in the developed world – and that risk is more common and more severe in women.[8]

Natural pain remedies

Thankfully, a variety of non-pharmaceutical strategies can help us deal with pain. Here are some of my favorites:

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that dulls pain, by calming the muscles. Magnesium may therefore help with muscle aches, like back aches, “Charley horses” (sudden, involuntary muscle spams), menstrual cramps, and tension headaches.[9],[10]

This relaxation happens not only in the skeletal muscles (muscles like the biceps and triceps), but also in the small, smooth muscles that line the blood vessels.[11] By calming the muscles in the blood vessels, magnesium helps more blood pass through the arteries and veins, thereby reducing blood pressure and supporting heart health.[12]

Magnesium also influences nerve transmission, protecting our nervous systems against excitotoxicity (excessive excitation).[13] This in turn can dampen the transmission of pain signals,[14] thereby helping us feel calm and get restful sleep.[15] Because of this soothing effect on the nervous system, magnesium can also help ease neuropathic pain, such as that seen with diabetic neuropathies and post-herpetic neuralgia (pain after shingles).[16]

Women with fibromyalgia tend to have more body pain the lower their magnesium blood levels are.[17] Individuals who suffer from migraine headaches are also more likely to have low magnesium levels than those who don’t get migraines,[18] and magnesium supplementation has been shown to reduce both the frequency and duration of migraines.[19]

Individuals who suffer from migraine headaches are more likely to have low magnesium levels than those who don’t get migraines.

A quick note on dosing magnesium: Yet another perk of magnesium is that high doses of the mineral can trigger a loose bowel movement, thus relieving constipation. If that occurs, however, it means that very little of the magnesium was actually absorbed by the body. If the goal is to use the magnesium to help with pain, then it’s best to dose it within your “bowel tolerance.”

Vitamin C

Taking as little as 2 grams of vitamin C one hour before surgery reduces the need for opioid pain meds post-op.[20] Intravenous (IV) vitamin C has been shown to have similar post-operative analgesic benefits.[21],[22] This may be because vitamin C is one of the most cost-effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients available, or because it has been theorized to support the production of endomorphins and endorphins.[23]

Vitamin C is one of the most cost-effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients available.

The vitamin has even shown promise in helping curb drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms in those with opioid addiction. Vitamin C also supports collagen synthesis and facilitates the healing of wounds, making it a doubly good choice after an injury or a surgery.[24]

Like magnesium, vitamin C works best for pain when taken within bowel tolerance.

Nervines

An entire class of botanicals can ease anxiety, relieve muscle tension, and support restful sleep. As the name “nervine” implies, these herbal medicines have an affinity for the nervous system.[25] Medicinal preparations of nervine herbs may be found in the form of tinctures (liquid preparations of either grain alcohol or vegetable glycerin), teas (tisanes), tablets, or capsules.

Common nervines include lavender (Lavandula), milky oats (Avena), skullcap (Scutellaria), catnip (Nepeta), and chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). These plants are generally considered safe for children and adults alike (though not all are safe in pregnancy).

Stronger nervines are also referred to as relaxants, and include passionflower (Passiflora), valerian (Valeriana), and hops (Humulus).

Even stronger nervines used to manage pain are referred to as anodynes. These include Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia), California poppy (Eschscholzia), and kava kava (Piper methysticum). These plants have a psycholeptic (or calming) effect on the central nervous system.[26]

In addition to easing pain, Jamaican dogwood and California poppy have shown promise in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia.[27],[28],[29],[30],[31],[32]

Kavalactones are the pharmacologically active compounds that give kava kava its analgesic properties.[33] Because kava kava is an herbal muscle relaxant with rather strong and sedating effects, it is not advisable to drive a car after taking this herb!

Honokiol

Honokiol, an extract of magnolia bark, has been shown to support the survival and growth of neurons, as well as to alleviate pain in rodents.[34] It likely does this through a variety of mechanisms – including influences at the NMDA receptor and inhibition of glutamate and substance P, two well-known mediators of pain related to inflammation.[35]

Extracts of magnolia bark relax the nervous system by modulating GABAA receptors. Honokiol is thus often used not only to alleviate pain, but also to help with anxiety, depression (including postpartum depression), and sleep issues.[36],[37],[38],[39],[40],[41],[42]

Cannabidiol

The analgesic effect of Cannabis (marijuana, pot, weed) has been well established in a number of studies and has a long history of anecdotal evidence.[43]

While the cannabis plant contains many cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD) is perhaps the most researched.[44] Unlike the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gets you “high,” CBD is non-psychoactive – and therefore legal in the United States. CBD is generally safe and can be administered in a variety of ways, including smoking, eating, rectal suppository, topical creams, and roll-ons. (You can even find CBD sex lube in some places!)

Cannabis is understood to alleviate pain by supporting the endo-cannabinoid system (ECS), a network in the body that modulates pain.[45] Endo-cannabinoid proteins and endo-cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the nervous system, with biological functions like pain sensation, memory, mood, and even immune response.

Opioid medications have been shown to deplete the endo-cannabinoid system, in turn driving up pain perception.

Sadly, opioid medications have been shown to deplete the ECS, in turn driving up pain perception. This perpetuates a cycle of drug dependency, causing the individual with a depleted ECS to require more opioids to manage their pain. Fortunately, cannabis can reverse the damage by nourishing the ECS, easing pain perception, and reducing opioid dependency.[46] This may explain why there has been a significant decrease in the number of prescriptions written for certain opioid drugs in areas that legalized medical marijuana.[47]

CBD has been shown to alleviate pain best when blended with a low dose of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is synergism is known as “the entourage effect,” and makes a powerful analgesic combination.[48]

Kratom

Native to Southeast Asia, kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a member of the coffee family. The tree contains several alkaloids, most notably mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. These alkaloids serve as partial agonists of the μ (mu) opioid receptor – the same receptor affected by opioid painkillers. Kratom is thus a hard-hitting, herbal alternative to drugs like oxycodone.[49]

Kratom is a hard-hitting, herbal alternative to drugs like oxycodone.

Even natural remedies that stimulate opioid receptors can be addictive, however, and kratom is no exception. Caution is warranted in those with a propensity toward addiction, and long-term, ongoing use of kratom is not recommended.[50],[51]

Hydrotherapy

Cold water and ice packs can dull pain, reduce swelling, and even slow down bleeding – so much so that using an ice pack after surgery has been shown to decrease narcotic use and shorten recovery time.[52]

Because water is a better conductor of temperature than air, submerging an injured body part in cold water works more effectively than simply applying ice topically. A whole branch of medicine known as hydrotherapy (or sometimes balneotherapy) is in fact centered upon the therapeutic applications of hot and cold water to the body.[53] A general guideline for cold applications is to limit them to just 20 minutes at a time.

Mindfulness practice

The reason we feel the pain of a physical injury is because of the signal it sends to the brain: our nervous systems are hugely implicated in the perception of pain. We also know that a stressed brain perceives pain more intensely than a relaxed brain. It’s no wonder, then, that several studies have shown that meditation and other mindfulness practices can ease both acute and chronic pain.[54]

A stressed brain perceives pain more intensely than a relaxed brain.

Mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce stress hormone levels and fight inflammation, thereby dampening two major players in pain perception. Meditation can also trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s homemade natural pain relievers.[55]

Meditation doesn’t need to be complicated or difficult. It can simply entail sitting in a chair or on the floor and breathing calmly with the eyes closed or open (with a soft gaze) for ten minutes a day.

Nature is here to help

Opioids and NSAIDs are effective in treating pain – but so are a variety of other therapies. Sure, life may be full of pain. But it is also full of natural remedies to help you sail through it.

References

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