Pain relief

‘I don’t like using painkillers,’ a patient said to me the other day. ‘Isn’t there anything herbal I can take?’

It’s a good question. Some of the strongest painkillers are the opiates, which of course were originally derived from the opium poppy. It is illegal to use extracts or derivatives of Papaver somniferum, though there are plenty of other herbs which do have anaesthetic effects. However, you’d have to take quite a large dose of foul-tasting tea or tincture to get the same effect as one paracetamol, for example; and there would be other drawbacks. Most painkilling herbs are ‘cold’; they sit heavily in your digestive system, they can depress breathing, and generally slow you down. Professional herbalists tend to use them, if at all, in conjunction with other herbs that will balance and augment their action.

In any case, herbs are better at helping treat the causes of pain, rather than simply suppressing it. There are herbs that help reduce inflammation, boost circulation, ease muscle spasm and dispel anxiety, all of which can contribute to the experience of pain. It’s been shown, for example, that putting a ginger compress on your abdomen if you suffer from period pains can help to relax the muscles and promote a smooth flow, so that you will need less painkillers, or maybe none at all. It’s not a simple substitution of a herb for a drug; at its best, herbal medicine can go deeper than that. Pain is a sign that something is amiss, but it is just a signpost pointing to something else. It’s the something else that really needs attention, and suppressing the pain can end up making matters worse.

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