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5 herbs for external application instead of painkillers

  • Helen Barnett
    Helen Barnett

    Helen is a medical herbalist, Yoga therapist and Thai bodywork practitioner. Following graduating with a BSc Hons in Western Herbal Medicine from the University of Westminster in 2009, Helen practiced as a herbalist seeing clients in clinics in the UK for over 10 years, and also spent time working as a lecturer and clinical supervisor for the Betonica School of Herbal Medicine.

    Through her own health journey Helen has found the tools of Yoga and herbs, and a sense of connection to nature, to be beneficial in carving a way to a healthier and more balanced lifestyle, and her passion is sharing this to empower people with the skills, knowledge, and discernment to improve their health, wellbeing, and quality of life in ways which are sustainable to each individual.

    Helen facilitates herbal medicine courses and workshops which share the knowledge and wisdom of herbs, interwoven with Yoga practices and self-reflection to better understand our unique and ever-changing needs, and how to best support them.

    Helen also teaches therapeutic Yoga workshops, offers private Yoga therapy sessions and healing bodywork, and is a writer sharing the scientific knowledge and traditional wisdom of herbs, and insights on healthy living practices through her brand HB Healthy.

    The essence of what Helen offers is bringing people back to their essential nature, through re-connecting with their own bodies and the wider nature surrounding them, to re-establish a state of inner harmony and balance, from where they can live a healthy vibrant life, whatever it brings.

  • 11:21 reading time (ish)
  • Mobility & Fitness

Written by Helen Barnett

5 herbs for external application instead of painkillers

Most of us will become familiar with pain in one form or another during our lives, and it may come as no surprise that pain is the most common reason that people seek medical care (1).  Pain has both sensory and emotional components, and it is often categorised as either acute (short-term), or chronic (long-term) in nature (1).

The definition of pain is ‚Äėan unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.‚Äô (2). It is interesting to note that the stimulus of pain sometimes is not proportional to the response, highlighting how emotional factors can influence our perceptions of pain, and how stress may also play a role in our responses to and ability to tolerate pain. This is why healing modalities like hypnotherapy can sometimes be useful. However, most pain has a physiological basis.

Whatever the root cause of pain, it is common to seek relief in the form of conventional painkillers. Painkillers tend to be thought of as tablets, the most common ones being:

  • Paracetamol
  • Ibuprofen (classified as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory or NSAID)
  • Co-codamol (codeine-based painkiller)

However, taking painkillers over prolonged periods comes with potential side effects which tend to affect the gastrointestinal tract (especially with NSAIDs which can cause irritation to the gastric lining, and co-codamol which can cause constipation). Long-term use of any painkillers can take its toll on the body in terms of the load for the liver to process.

Topical painkillers are applicable in many cases and recommended in order to provide pain relief whilst avoiding the plethora of side effects often associated with stronger painkillers taken internally. They can also be used alongside painkiller tablets to provide additional relief.

Topical pain relief is delivered directly to the affected area by application to the skin. This type of conventional pain relief tends to be given in cases of:

  • Arthritic pain (such as in osteoarthritis)
  • Muscular pain (such as backache or injury)
  • Neuropathic pain (pain of origin in nerve damage or injury, such as neuralgia following a bout of shingles)

The topical painkillers widely used include:

  • Topical NSAIDs such as ibuprofen gel which is a preferred option to begin with topical pain relief
  • Capsaicin cream: often given in cases of neuropathic pain or arthritis where the preferred option of topical NSAIDs has not been tolerated
  • Lidocaine 5% Patch and EMLA which are local anaesthetics (3, 4)
herbs as painkillers

These topical painkillers do sometimes cause milder side effects of skin irritation local to the area they are applied to.

One of the main advantages of external herbal applications for pain relief is that herbs themselves often have more than one action on the body, and they are often formulated into preparations which include more than one herb with actions that target different areas of pain relief.  This synergistic effect means that pain can be targeted in a rounded way which will improve symptoms of pain often more effectively than simply just numbing the pain.

The actions of herbs often employed in pain relief include:

  • Analgesics: Reduce sensation of pain
  • Rubefacients: Increase circulation to the area which can be helpful in removing congestion
  • Anti-inflammatories: Reduce inflammation which is often associated with arthritic pain or injury
  • Muscle relaxants: Relax the muscle tissues which can be helpful in cases of pain associated with muscular tension such as injury, backache, and tension headaches

In addition, herbal preparations for topical pain relief are typically without the side effects that are often experienced with conventional painkillers.

Conventional medical approaches to pain relief also recommend lifestyle measures as part of a pain management strategy, in combination with painkillers if necessary.

Although rest is important for healing, being too inactive can contribute to the level of pain experienced.  Remaining inactive because of pain can have an impact on our physical and emotional state, where prolonged inactivity can lead to:

  • Physically: Tightening of muscles, creating further tension in the body, which can make moving around more difficult and increase the level of pain.
  • Emotionally: Lack of motivation, feelings of isolation, and even depression, which can contribute to increased levels of pain (5).

This highlights the importance of finding balance between taking the necessary rest to allow the body to heal and remaining sufficiently active to ensure additional tension does not accumulate, and that muscle mass, strength, flexibility, and joint mobility are maintained.

The following are recommendations given as part of a conventional medicine strategy to manage chronic pain and remain active:

  • Exercise little and often, daily if possible (such as walking, swimming, or cycling).
  • Gentle stretching on a regular basis (such as dancing, Yoga, or Pilates)

Additional options may include:

  • Physical therapy (such as physiotherapy, osteopathy or chiropractic)
  • Meditation for pain (5)

These suggestions are of course case dependent on your capability of moving after injury.

Helen Barnett

Helen is a medical herbalist, Yoga therapist and Thai bodywork practitioner. Following graduating with a BSc Hons in Western Herbal Medicine from the University of Westminster in 2009, Helen... Read more

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