Chronic Pain Series: Part 1 - Herbal Medicine

turmeric & ginger.jpg

There are so many health conditions that cause chronic pain - not just  arthritis. Auto-immune conditions, traumatic injuries, migraine/headaches, fibromyalgia, and even anxiety and depression have been linked to increased daily pain. Over time, this not only causes physical distress but also mental distress - it is no surprise that mental health disorders are commonly linked to chronic pain. Fortunately, there are many tools available for chronic pain sufferers - one of them being herbal/botanical medicine. 

When I thought about the topic of chronic pain - my first inclination was to talk about herbal medicine. Botanical/herbals act to quell chronic pain through some main biochemical actions - anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Anti-inflammatory herbs contain compounds that have been studied to reduce inflammatory chemicals in the body (which you will read about later in this post), and analgesic actions which have "pain-blocking" abilities - much like a painkiller/sedative medicine would (ex. taking tylenol for a headache). Other common actions are anti-rheumatic, meaning that historically this herb has been used for rheumatic (joint pain/other pain conditions), and anti-spasmodic (anti-cramping). 

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa) 

  • Curcumin polyphenols down-regulate NF-kB and Cox-2 - 2 which are anti-inflammatory (AI) molecules 
  • Possesses antinociceptive qualities due to its involvement in ATP-sensitive K+ channels; thus decreasing sensation of pain
  • Human studies have shown benefit in rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) 

  • Gingerol & Zingerone are key AI agents 
  • These AI agents modulate leukotriene and PG synthesis, along with inhibiting NFKb (other compounds regulating inflammation)
  • According to placebo there is a moderate to large effect of Zingiber exctracts on chronic pain (ex, arthritis, IBS, surgery, primary dysmenorrhea)

White Willow (Salix Alba)

  • The salicylic acid in Salix Alba is related to aspirin’s AI and analgesic ability therefore can be useful for any type of rheumatic or other types of pains
    •  This is actually safer to use than Aspirin because it does not have the same blood thinning abilities that aspirin does.

  Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) 

  • Cimicifugides are antispasmodic, antirheumatic, anti-inflammatory  so for any type of pain, especially cramping pain it will be useful for ex. Chronic pain as seen in Endometriosis

Marijuana (Cannabis Sativa/Indica)

  • The endocannibinoid system has been studied for modulating chronic pain conditions
    •  Endocannibinoids are not only limited to cannabis but are impacted by things such as exercising and fish oils
  • Medical marijuana has been studied for pain conditions such as arthritis, neuralgia, cancer pain etc.           
  •  Pain is multifaceted and is affected by various inflammatory systems as well and neurotransmitter and other systems (ex. the endocannibinoid system in Cannabis)
  • Although not legal for recreational use, the legalization of cannabis will allow for more research into its safety, efficacy and proper dosing for chronic pain use

Indian Frankincense (Boswellia Serrata)

  • This historic herb, used Ayruvedic medicine for arthritic conditions, and in Western medicine for other inflammatory-related processes (ex. Ulcerative Colitis, Chronic pains, Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Inhibitis leukotrienes just like many of the other AF herbs, which may be one of the reasons it is helpful in chronic pain conditions 

Many other herbs are useful for chronic pain, and visiting a naturopathic doctor could help you determine which herbs are useful for you. An advantage of using herbal medicine is that many herbs have other actions that can also treat other co-existing concerns at the same time. For example, ginger is also anti-emetic so would be useful for someone experiencing chronic pain as well as nausea.  

Comment below with your favourite herbs for chronic pain, or if you have any questions about any of the discussed herbs. 

Stay tuned for the next post in the Chronic Pain series: Mind- Body Therapies. 



  2. Dr. Godfrey. Herbal Medicine. CCNM. 2015
  3. Chris Kresser (2017). Should you Consider Medical Marijuana? Cannabinoid Podcast
  4. ND Assist (2017), Indian Frankincense. ND Assist. 
  5. Lakhan, Ford, Tepper (2015). Zingiber extracts for pain. A systemic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition Journal.