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

by CoreyPine Shane on December 2nd, 2012

Herbs for Pain - Part 2 of 3

Let me say this up front - there is no one herb for all kinds of pain. They are not isolated chemicals like pharmaceutical medicines, they are a complex of hundreds of chemicals that can affect many parts of the body at once. They might not always work as strongly as pharmaceuticals, but the more specific you can get, the better the herbs will work. And of course the best idea is to figure out why someone is pain and treat the root cause at the same time.

There are some general categories that analgesic herbs fall into – nerve pain, muscle pain, injury and inflammation, headache, and serious pain. And these are the categories we’ll use for our discussion here.

The best way to begin is to ask enough questions to understand what’s going on. We may not be moving to a specific diagnosis, but at least to understand the character of the pain and get closer to what the client is actually feeling. Use your curiosity to ask good questions, and include the following:

When did this begin? How often does it happen?
Have you ever had anything like this happen before?
How bad is the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?
What makes it better/worse?
What does it feel like? Where in the body? Can you show me where?

These questions help you assess what might be going on, and also to choose the best herb for the situation. Let's begin by looking at herbs for nerve and muscle pain.

Nerve pain tends to be shooting pain, or pain along a line. Symptoms might include numbness and tingling, those these can also be signs of poor circulation. This category includes sciatica, shingles, spinal pain, tooth pain, herpes, etc. When showing where it hurts, people will often use their finger to point to their pain; if they hold a part of their body with their whole hand, it is more likely muscle pain. Useful herbs for nerve pain include St. John’s Wort, Skullcap, and Motherwort.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is actually one of my favorites for nerve pain, especially spinal pain, for which I have used the infused oil rubbed on topically and the tincture taken internally. It can reduce pain enough to allow people to sleep and go see the chiropractor or doctor in the morning. I also use it for sciatica, and here I like to combine it with Skullcap and Willow bark tinctures.

This remedy has a longer historical use for wounds and bruises than as an anti-depressant as we use it now. I have seen great results using St. John's Wort topically for tingling and numbness following compression injuries, seeming to help soothe as well as help regenerate the nerves. This effect on nerve growth can be enhanced by combining it with Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) seed or root tincture applied topically.

Skullcap is one of my favorite herbs for the nervous system, perhaps because it can be used as a long-term tonic to build and nourish the nervous system as well as having an immediate affect that can be used for insomnia from circular thinking or, as is appropriate for this article, for nerve pain.

For the latter use, I often combine it with St. John's Wort, but I also combine it with Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) as the basis of a migraine headache formula. Skullcap has been used for tremors, trigeminal neuralgia and even epilepsy because of its ability to relax the muscles by dimming the amount of nerve signals being sent. In Chinese Medicine, it might be looked at as an herb for Qi Stagnation because of its ability to relax resistance to the flow of energy (qi) in the body.

And finally, Motherwort, an herb I have recommended primarily for PMS, menstrual pain, and anxiety that results in chest tightness, but I have also seen good results using it for muscle tightening around painful spots and it is a specific for shingles (herpes zoster), painful skin eruptions that are related to chicken pox.

To Be Continued: Next blog – Muscle pain.

by CoreyPine Shane on July 11th, 2012

“A New Approach to Working with Pain”
Part 1 of 3

Last year as I was preparing for a class at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in New Mexico, I found myself thinking a lot about how we use herbs to treat pain. Too often we end up in the trap of just throwing herbs at pain, when we could be changing our whole relationship with pain, an experience that doesn’t just get rid of discomfort but helps us see life in a different way.

Though no one seeks out pain or discomfort, we do live in a culture that is more pro-comfort than any other culture in history. Our cars save us from walking and experiencing the weather, our heaters and air conditioning keep our homes and offices the same temperature no matter the season, and we are encouraged to relish in comfort and destroy any uncomfortable feelings.

We spend half our lives dodging the uncomfortable feeling of being in body: with music, TV, beer, sex, and chocolate croissants. These things aren’t bad in and of themselves, just as long as they don’t lead us away from ourselves. Pain is like the warning light on a car’s dashboard. It is the messenger, and when we shoot the messenger, the problems get worse.

Maybe that headache is a sign not to overwork, or that stomach ache is a sign not to eat dairy. When you hear/feel that message, ask what the true cause is, then be willing to sit with it until the answer appears. It might not be what you think at first, and in fact it is important not to think about it too much.

The most courageous and productive thing we can do is to feel into our discomfort, to stay with it, instead of running away. The bravest and most important thing we can do is to get comfortable with discomfort. This doesn’t mean engaging in self-pity, dwelling on the pain, or seeking out pain, but to be able to feel fully and so feel THROUGH it.

This exercise will make you a stronger person: The next time you feel pain, whether physical or emotional – stay with it. Look at it without trying to change it or think about it, just put your attention there and notice what you are feeling. Describe it in words if that helps – give it a color, a sound, or describe it metaphorically.

As you put your attention there, an amazing thing often happens – the sensation starts to recede and deeper emotions and sensations come to consciousness. There is a tendency to start thinking here, but stay with the feeling. Even with emotional pain, see where in your body you feel it. When we are able to sit and notice the true source of our discomfort, it is often less scary that we thought. Often the fear of feeling is worse than feeling the feeling.

This carries over to how we interact with others. When we see our friends and clients in pain, we can meet them there with the same awareness instead of offering simple platitudes. Too often we are afraid of someone else’s pain awakening our own pain. Know that you can hear someone’s story, have empathy and not have to get lost in their story.

Pain points to where we can grow. One of my yoga teachers would say that the point of yoga is not to be able to do everything easily but to be willing to make yourself a bit uncomfortable and meet your edge. “When you find your edge, that is where the yoga happens.”

In the same way, when we are able to sit with something less than comfortable and just be with it rather than fight the reality of our experience, then we get the gold. Then we grow stronger and deeper.

Herbs used to treat different kinds of pain.
Because, yes, there are times to treat pain.

by Allison Brooks on February 17th, 2012

Cucurmin Research and its Role in Cancer Treatment

Cucurmin is an active constituent of the spice turmeric, which comes from a plant called Cucurma longa. The plant is a member of the ginger family and produces rhizomes, which are thick underground stems that grow horizontally and send out both shoots and roots. Cucurmin is one of several compounds found in the rhizomes, called curcuminoids, that are found in turmeric and is considered the most biologically active. Curcumin has a long history in Asian medicine for the treatment of various diseases.

Curcumin has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and there is some research that
indicates it might be helpful in some kinds of cancer. Inflammation may play a role in cancer, and
cucurmin may help counteract that effect. Some enzymes in the human body can help you eliminate potential cancer-causing substances, or carcinogens, while others are actually changed into carcinogens. Cucurmin may increase the activity of some enzymes that eliminate carcinogens.

Research on mice with breast cancer indicates cucurmin can decrease the spread of cancer to the lungs and may make the chemotherapy drug Taxol more effective. The breast cancer research was led by a team headed by B.B. Aggarwal, a professor of cancer research at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Another research group, led by Fei Ye of the MD Anderson Cancer Center has also shown that curcumin is effective in suppressing esophageal cancer cells.

Another research study on prostate cancer found curcumin may be able to prevent prostate cancer. A team of researchers in Luxembourg, led by Marie-Hélène Teiten, found that curcumin interferes with cancer cell development and prevents the cells from reproducing. Cucurmin also decreased the spread of prostate cancer. The researchers felt curcumin’s anti-inflammatory action was responsible for the beneficial effect and that curcumin showed promise as an alternative for prostate cancer treatment and prevention.

The research on curcumin, although promising, is still in its early stages. Curcumin should not be
considered a cancer treatment or preventative at this point. The research on curcumin has been done with animals or in the lab, and there are no studies on cucurmin’s effect in human cancers. More studies are being conducted to hope to find a better cure for low life-expectancy cancers. Hopefully there will emerge another favorable treatment against cancer.

Allison Brooks is fresh on the scene as a biomedical anthropologist. She recently graduated with a degree from the University of Mississippi and now travels a great deal to Bolivia to study the effects of biomedicalization on their culture. Through her studies, she has been getting into natural health and the use of herbs in healing, and in her off –time she likes to guest blog for people to spread the word.

Posted on January 6th, 2011

I want to follow up on my last blog by going into greater depth with some of the expectorant herbs, specifically, stimulating expectorants like Osha, Elecampane, and Grindelia. Then in the next blog we’ll discuss relaxing expectorants and anti-tussives like Wild Cherry, Mullein, and Pleurisy root.

Many of the stimulating expectorants are either aromatic and spicy or resinous and sticky, or both. Aromatic herbs have a dispersing energy and help break up thick mucus. But the resinous herbs are even stronger at breaking up stuck phlegm.

One of my favorite herbs to fight viral infections and clear mucous is Osha. With a taste like spicy celery, it has a warming and drying energy to help break up and dry out mucous. But I do try to use Osha in moderation as it only grows at high elevations in the Rocky mountains.

Osha works best for upper respiratory infections where things haven’t gone too deep in the lungs yet, where the infection is still in the nose/sinuses or just creeping into the lungs. Osha does work for allergies as well, but I usually use other herbs like Ragweed leaves or fresh Nettle leaf tincture.

The drying quality can be very useful here, and I only use it when there is some congestion, but to avoid overdoing it, Osha combines nicely with Licorice or honey as a syrup without hurting its medicinal use.

Elecampane is my favorite herb for deep lung issues like bronchitis or even pneumonia. With a bitter and a “deep” aromatic flavor with a resinous quality, Elecampane helps drag out gunk from deep in the lungs, heating things up and getting them moving like warming up refrigerated olive oil.

When I lived in upstate New York with those cold damp winters, I used this herb all the time as I would see at least a dozen bronchitis cases during the coldest months. Now that I live in North Carolina with a more variable winter, I don’t tend to use it as much. Still, a great herb for actively cleaning out the lungs, whether for acute or chronic lung issues. It was used historically for chronic “catarrhal” conditions, with catarrh meaning congested phlegm.

Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) is actually a stronger expectorant and good for tenacious sticky mucus. It is highly resinous, so works best as a tincture (resins are not very water soluble). Gumweed buds are so sticky the white resin is visible on the outside. It grows abundantly all across the western third of the U.S. This is a classic example of how resins tend to direct to the lungs and help break up phlegm, as seen in the classic White Pine Cough Syrup, which uses for medicine the same sticky sap you get on your shirt when you lean against a pine tree.

Next time we’ll get more into herbs that either soothe or suppress excessive coughing.

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