What Types Of Herbal Remedies Can Be Used To Treat Pain; Are Any Harmful?'

Dr. James Rathmell answers the question: 'What Herbal Remedies Work For Pain?'

ByABC News
December 24, 2007, 10:15 AM

— -- Question: What Types Of Herbal Remedies Can Be Used To Treat Pain And Are Any Of Them Harmful?

Answer: Well use of herbal remedies, now there's a question that comes up over and over. And there's wide use of herbal remedies for a number of different things and pain is right at the top of the list. I can name a few probably the most common are glucosamine and chondroitin; they're used for two reasons, one is to reduce the pain associated with arthritis, particularly degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis, and to maintain the size of the joint, to decrease the overall level of joint destruction.

Randomized trials, scientific trials, have been very confusing and conflicting. And I don't think we have the ultimate answer, but the best answer we have today is that they do appear to reduce the overall level of pain to some degree. But it's probably a pretty small effect. Whether or not they decrease how quickly the osteoarthritis progresses, we can't really answer with any certainty because some trials say yes and some say no. One thing we know clearly is that using the sulfate of glucosamine is most important, the hydrochloride form of that compound is not useful at all.

Other compounds, other herbal remedies that come up frequently; willow bark is one that's used for pain, it appears as though it has compounds that are very similar to aspirin in it, so there's no doubt that it reduces pain in a lot of different types of pain. Is it more potent than an aspirin? Well we don't have comparative studies that tell us, but we do think that it's probably important to tell your doctor that you're using willow bark in addition to other types of medications you might be on, like aspirin or ibuprofen because it can cause bleeding abnormalities in excessive doses. So there are times when it can be harmful.

And I think the last herbal remedy that I talk a little bit about, one that comes up a lot, is capsaicin; there are a number of creams out there that are used primarily for arthritis and/or for things like low back pain or shingles. And it's the active ingredient in hot peppers, capsaicin, so these creams can burn quite a bit when you put them on. The compound, the active compound, capsaicin in hot peppers, actually depletes a certain type of nerve-signaling peptide that's involved in pain transmission. So it's a very, very interesting compound. Now the problem with it in terms of providing pain relief is it burns a lot to put it on, you have to put it on repeatedly for several days or as much as a week before you get much of the pain relief and then the pain relief is fairly modest. There don't appear to be any long-term dangers with use of that medication so it seems quite safe.

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