Herbs for Muscle Pain
by CoreyPine Shane on January 3rd, 2013

Herbs for Pain, part 3

In treating muscle and joint pain I find it helpful to draw from Chinese medicine, which tells us that pain is caused by stagnation, and in the muscles this looks like muscles tightening and spasming shut. Circulation and thus relaxation can be achieved with anti-spasmodics to relax resistance to circulation, or by using circulatory stimulants to bring fresh blood in.

Herbs such as Black Cohosh (Actea racemosa), Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), and Wood Betony (Pedicularis spp.) work by relaxing muscular tension so that fewer pain signals are being sent to the brain. In Chinese medicine this is thought of as relaxing the resistance to the flow of Qi (“energy”) so that energy can flow more smoothly and cause less pain. And really, whatever you can do to relax the body around the pain will help relieve some of the pain. When we tense our bodies, we stimulate more nerve transmission of pain messages. So, breathe into it.

Now Black Cohosh you might think of as an herb for female problems, and it is one of the top ten selling herbs these days for just that reason. But 100 years ago it was a top ten herb for totally different reasons – because it is one of the best herbs for rheumatism, a catch-all word for joint pains. And it is one of the best.

Black Cohosh is special because it affects both the organ muscles like Wild Yam as well as the skeletal muscles like Wood Betony. So it can be used for both menstrual cramps and for whiplash and is an excellent herb for both. I use Black Cohosh to treat menstrual cramps, wry neck, whiplash, rheumatoid arthritis, and frontal headaches, including those from eyestrain. Just be aware that in larger doses it can actually cause headaches as well. It is a strong herb and so I use it in moderation, and should never be used by a pregnant woman without appropriate medical advice.

Wood Betony, on the other hand, works primarily to relax the skeletal muscle so it is a better herb for tight tense muscles that are over-worked or just plain sore. I use it for tension headaches with a tight neck, muscles that are sore and tight from over-use, or hiking a 50-pound backpack up a 10 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in the first hike of the spring when you're not warmed up yet and the “gentle incline” turns out to be as steep as a mountain goat trail.

There are several massage therapists I know who use Wood Betony for their clients before a session to get particularly tight and tense individuals a jump start on the relaxation process, and there is a chiropractor in Arizona who uses it to relax the back muscles so that an adjustment holds longer because the relaxed muscles take to it better.

When muscle tension is caused by anxiety and stress, I often prefer Kava kava (Piper methysticum), a root from the South Pacific (as if they really need stress relief on Bali). Because the constituents are more alcohol than water soluble, it is often used as a tincture, sometimes in large quantities late at night after an herb conference has wrapped up for the day.

Kava works on GABA receptors, a similar mechanism as Valium, and acts to relax muscles by reducing excess signaling from the brain and central nervous system, so it is one of my choice anti-anxiety agents as well as being excellent for headaches from stress and worry, tense shoulder muscles, or when your back feels like a slab of plywood after driving 12 hours and then hitting rush hour traffic on I-95 in Washington, D.C.

In all these instances, it is the tightness and tension causing the pain, so it is important to also look at other factors that make muscles tight. Folks who have chronic muscle pain can learn specific stretches or yoga poses that can often help, and working on posture can also be very helpful. Those with chronic low back pain often need to strengthen their abdominal muscles to help create balance between opposing muscles groups.

Next time: Circulatory herbs for pain – Arnica, Prickly Ash and Sassafrass

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Soma generic - May 15th, 2013 at 8:38 AM
Great stuff here. The information and the detail were just perfect.Many thanks for this very useful information you have provided here. Thanks and all the best for next post.
Susan - June 9th, 2013 at 1:26 PM
pardon my ignorance but are these ingested or applied?
CoreyPine Shane - June 18th, 2013 at 10:53 PM
Typically they are ingested, but some of these can be used topically as well. Typically tinctures (alcohol extracts) are sold for internal use and oil extracts (NOT essential oils, that's different) are for external use. An example for external use would be Arnica oil or cream for muscle pain, or St. John's Wort oil for nerve pain.

Hope that helps!
Michelle - January 22nd, 2016 at 6:16 AM
You said that some of them can be used topically which ones would you not recommend using as an oil on the skin?
CoreyPine Shane - January 25th, 2016 at 6:44 PM
Really any of these herbs are okay as infused oils. But essential oils should not be used undiluted most times, always research the specific essentials oils you use.
Jason - June 17th, 2013 at 8:50 PM
I will be taking this information to my Naturopath on my next visit!
Mandie - June 19th, 2013 at 8:18 AM
I have had some sort of chronic muscle/tendon tightness since I was a child. The older I get, the worse it gets. I've seen chiropractors and also had many massages. There are obvious points of discomfort throughout my body that don't ever relax even if I stretch. I live in China and am easily able to get Chinese herbs. Could you tell me at least the pinyin and maybe even the characters for these herbs as well as what your recommended dosage is. I used to be able to find relief by sleeping, but now it is so wide spread that it keeps me awake. The only other time I feel relief is if I'm in a situation that produces some sort of adrenaline or endorphins to cover the discomfort.
Lioresal generic - July 31st, 2013 at 6:00 AM
I have used Lioresal generic and found it really effective. It was prescribed by my doctor and worked very well for me. I definitely recommend the use of this medicine, but not without consulting a physician.
CoreyPine Shane - August 30th, 2013 at 8:10 PM
There are times to use prescription medication, but over the years I have been consistently suprised at how well specifically chosen herbal medicines have worked for pain.
Sunflour - September 20th, 2013 at 3:53 PM
Black Cohosh is at risk of being endangered. Please only use this plant as a last resort and read labels to find "sustainable or ethical" as part of the harvesting method. Also, I've heard Kava Kava should not be taken for long periods. Emotional therapy/confrontation/resolve is heavily related to tension in the body! Thank you for this article!
CoreyPine Shane - December 8th, 2013 at 12:46 PM
Hi Sunflour, Thank you for caring about the wild plants, without them we would be poor herbalists indeed!

I know that Black Cohosh appears on the United Plant Savers list, but my experience is that it is a fairly abundant plant in the southern Appalachians, as long as it is harvested with an eye toward sustainability. Make sure you are buying it from reliable sources.

Kava kava is safe for long term use, but because it is a strong herb, I would recommend people who need it long-term to pulse it. In other words, take it for 2-3 months, then take 2 weeks off. That's my take on it. Thanks for your feedback!
Mike - October 10th, 2013 at 6:04 PM
I am so glad to find your website!
As a teenager I was very much stressed( maybe anxious) and had painful cramps in my neck. Now I am in my forties, I still feel cramps in those areas, no pain though, but once in a couple of month it turns to extremely painful headaches. I went to all type of doctors, MRI etc, but all tests came back negative.yesterday I started with Fever few. I feel always restless in my chess up since childhood. I would greatly appreciate any advise! Thanks
CoreyPine Shane - December 8th, 2013 at 12:49 PM
Hi Mike, I refrain from giving personal advice on these blog comments but you can contact me personally through the website. But a few places to start might include taking relaxing herbs, starting with something gentle and using Kava Kava when the spasms and tension were especially bad. Just as a place to start.

Also, you might want to think about talking to a chiropractor since they are skilled in diagnosis of spinal issues.
Lisa - October 11th, 2013 at 5:52 PM
I suffer from Vaginismus (painful sex) and I was wondering if you thought a tincture of kava kava, black cohosh and cramp bark may help. Vaginismus is really just super tight muscles in the vagina and pelvic area that cause pain with intercourse.
CoreyPine Shane - December 8th, 2013 at 12:51 PM
Hello Lisa, that sounds like some good herbs to take since all relax the pelvic muscles. I would also advise looking at the root cause of the issue - perhaps a counselor who works with Somatic Experiencing would be helpful.
KS - August 1st, 2014 at 5:13 AM
Hi there, Brilliant article, thank you so much.. I suffer with severe stage fright (i sing and play the guitar) .. Can you please tell me if you would recommend Kava Kava for this? The anxiety also causes my muscles to tense badly whilst playing which ruins performances, I once had to stop half way through performing a song because the tension caused the muscles in one arm to seize. Any help you could offer would be so gratefully received, thank you.
CoreyPine Shane - August 26th, 2016 at 9:18 AM
I think Kava Kava or Pedicularis could be helpful for this. Be aware that if you are singing as well, Kava extract numbs the throat and many singers don't like this effect. The capsules of course don't do this.
HL - September 29th, 2014 at 7:58 PM
I have been diagnosed with vulvodynia. Initially I went to the OBGyn and dermatologist and they couldn't figure out what was wrong. I did months of physical therapy and it helped for a while, but now the pain is back. I fell and hit my tailbone pretty hard this past winter. Ever since then I have experienced pelvic pain and it gets worse with stress or certain exercises. I would like to try something natural to help my muscles calm down/reduce pain. My PT thinks my tail bone is constricted, nerves get pushed on and then it results in pelvic muscle spasms. Please let me know what the best herb options/combinations would be best to try. Thank you

Joann Cameron - March 10th, 2016 at 3:16 AM
I am on dialysis,diabetic,(no insilum or meds) I also have diverticulitis, and chronic lower back pain, is there a safe herb I can use for back pain?
Renee - March 15th, 2016 at 7:03 PM
Levitor Ani syndrome
Pain 24/7 doctors don't know what do to. Everything is tight. Trigger points are painful too. Heat is the only thing to help
Some what. Muscle relaxers haven't worked. There is nothing to be taken for the pain either. Want to try natural things now.
I'm desperate. Please help
Tammi - July 23rd, 2016 at 12:12 AM
I have an aunt who has advanced Parkinson's disease and she suffers nearly 2 hours a day from muscle spasms. Due to her age 82 we have to be cautious with medicines that are hard on her liver. We had her on a muscle relaxant which helped a lot but caused her to sleep all the time and not it be awake enough to eat or participate in the senior home activities . I am desperate to find her something to help with her pain. Any advice would be greatly appreciated
kava - November 18th, 2016 at 4:41 PM
Awseome blog thanks. I just started using kava and it helps greatly with my anxiety and as a muscle relaxer.
CoreyPine Shane - January 27th, 2017 at 1:05 PM
Good to hear!! Thanks for the feedback.
DaisyStar - January 22nd, 2017 at 9:30 AM
Hi - Great info here - very inspiring (I wonder if my teen would like to be an herbalist). Please could you tell me if Wood Betony and Black Cohosh are best as tea or capsule for these purposes of muscular pain/relaxation? Thank you.
CoreyPine Shane - January 27th, 2017 at 1:05 PM
Thank you! I do my best to educate and inspire.

Black Cohosh tastes terrible as a tea, so I would either use a tincture (alcohol extract - totally fine for teens) or capsules. As for the Wood Betony (Pedicularis) you could use tincture or tea but I haven't seen it in capsules before.

Hope that helps!
CoreyPine Shane - January 27th, 2017 at 1:05 PM
Thank you! I do my best to educate and inspire.

Black Cohosh tastes terrible as a tea, so I would either use a tincture (alcohol extract - totally fine for teens) or capsules. As for the Wood Betony (Pedicularis) you could use tincture or tea but I haven't seen it in capsules before.

Hope that helps!
Kate - March 4th, 2017 at 9:12 PM
Thank you for this great article. It's been very helpful info and has inspired me to explore other ways to look at and deal with pain. Would you also be able to use these herbs such as wood betony and black cohosh in a bath to help with sore tight muscles, especially after say working in the garden or painting the house?

I know i've been told crampbark is an amazing herb to use and i've used it and definitely a great one. I notice you didn't mention it here is there any particular reason?
CoreyPine Shane - March 20th, 2017 at 6:52 AM
Hi Kate,
Thank you! Glad the info is helpful. I haven't used either of those herbs in a bath though I have used Wood Betony topically for pain as an infused oil or just the tincture applied on the skin.

As for Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) it is a great herb; I don't use it much because I use Black Haw, a local relative that grows more abundantly in my area. But when I was in Ireland last year teaching about herbs for pain and inflammation, Cramp Bark was a favorite herb of many of the herbalists there - both internally and topically.

Hope that helps!
Kate - March 4th, 2017 at 9:20 PM
Are you still planning on writing on circulatory herbs for pain as I can't seem to find this on the site and it looks like this article was written in 2013.
CoreyPine Shane - March 20th, 2017 at 6:54 AM
Hello again Kate,
Sorry, I did forget about that. I find it interesting that in Chinese medicine herbs that help pain are called "blood movers" and it made me wonder about the connection between circulatory herbs and pain herbs. But I never did write a whole article about it. Maybe that's my next blog!

CoreyPine Shane - March 20th, 2017 at 6:54 AM
Hello again Kate,
Sorry, I did forget about that. I find it interesting that in Chinese medicine herbs that help pain are called "blood movers" and it made me wonder about the connection between circulatory herbs and pain herbs. But I never did write a whole article about it. Maybe that's my next blog!

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