Chronic pain often long
outlives its original cause.
It usually worsens over time and takes on a life of its own.
There is probably nothing more debilitating than
chronic pain. Defined as pain lasting for six months
or longer, chronic pain afflicts 50 to 80 million midlife
Americans and costs us over $100 billion in social costs
Recent research has shown that chronic pain is
destructive to the body. The longer chronic pain goes
untreated, the worse it becomes. Chronic pain
unleashes a cascade of harmful hormones, such as cortisol,
that adversely affect the immune system and kidney function.
Much has yet to be learned about chronic pain.
For instance, doctors used to think that severed nerves
could not transmit pain, and nerve cutting was typically
prescribed to treat pain. Cut motor nerves cause
paralysis, but sensory nerves are quite different.
Sometimes damage to these nerves kills them and they stay
dead, causing numbness. Sometimes sensory nerves grow back
irregularly, or begin firing spontaneously, producing
stabbing, shooting, and electrical sensations.
The body's pain system is plastic and is easily molded
by pain to cause more pain. A metaphor that is often
used to describe this process is that of an alarm
continually being reset to be more and more sensitive. At
first the alarm is triggered by an animal, then the breeze,
and then, for no apparent reason, it begins ringing randomly
or continuously. Additionally, pain nerves appear to
recruit others in a "chronic pain wind-up," and the entire
central nervous system becomes involved, revving up and
undergoing a kind of central sensitization. Research at
University of California at San Francisco has shown that
with prolonged injury, progressively deeper levels of pain
cells are activated in the spinal cord.
Most chronic pain in not in the muscle, bone or tissue,
but in the invisible hydra of the nerves. Of course,
not all chronic pain is neuropathic. There is the
shearing pain of inflammation, and muscular pain, or the
very real pain of a broken heart. But many chronic
pain conditions such as backache, once assumed to be
musculoskeletal, are now being revisited and realized to
have a neuropathic element.
Many chronic pain sufferers wind up taking huge amounts
of anti-inflammatory drugs. The NSAID'S (Non-steroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen put them at risk for
gastro-intestinal bleeding and liver dysfunction, and the
newer class of pharmaceutical pain relievers, the COX-2
inhibitors, while an improvement in terms of side effects,
still may cause some abdominal distress.
Anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin and Aleve, were
implicated in the deaths of 16,000 people in the USA in
2000, due to bleeding ulcers and related complications,
according to the Federal Drug Abuse Network.
Research is also uncovering the fact that anxiety and
depression are not so much responses to pain, but are the
consequences of it. Pain and depression share the same
neural pathways, the same circuitry. Serotonin and the
endorphins that modulate healthy brain functioning are the
same ones that modulate depression. Chronic pain uses
up serotonin like a car running out of gas.
Functional-imaging scans reveal similar disturbances in
brain chemistry in both chronic pain and depression, and the
same medications are used by allopathic physicians to treat
depression and pain. Depression and stressful events
can enhance pain, and chronic pain sufferers usually respond
to stress with more pain.
Chronic pain, it turns out, is not simply a sensory,
affective, or cognitive state. It's a biological
disease afflicting millions of people. Perhaps the biggest
question surrounding current pain research is whether the
pathological cortical reorganization, the cellular memory,
the deeply dug chronic pain channels, can be undone.
Scientists acknowledge that treatment can help suppress
the abnormal nervous system sensitivity. They also
know that it is far easier to prevent the establishment of
abnormal channels than to treat them once they have become
established. This means that when pain strikes, you
must act to relieve it immediately. It is absolutely
counterproductive to tough it out. Do not allow acute
pain to become deeply entrenched chronic pain. It
appears from the research that substances which nourish,
calm, and soothe the nervous system, can help relieve
chronic pain. Pain relieving herbs in many cases are
the same herbs that are used against depression.
Herbal Allies for
Some of my favorite
pain relieving herbal allies include skullcap,
cannabis, valerian, turmeric, poppy, willow bark, St.
John's wort, angelica, motherwort, black cohosh, wild
yam, lavender, cayenne, kava kava, and rose.
Essential oils of pine, lavender, peppermint,
cinnamon, rose, clove, frankincense, rosemary, ginger,
juniper, and birch also are used traditionally as pain
relievers and are well-documented analgesic agents.
Put 10-12 drops of any one of these essential oils in one
ounce of a carrier oil such as olive or coconut. Shake
well and then rub into painful, swollen joints to allay pain
If you suffer from chronic pain, try drinking four to
six cups of skullcap infusions daily, or take 10-15 drops of
skullcap tincture four to six times daily. Use skullcap as
needed, as often as every few minutes, in acute situations.
Skullcap quiets the nervous system, and so will be a
valuable ally if you suffer from chronic pain. A
combination of equal parts skullcap, St. John's wort, and
oatstraw is particularly effective for calming the nervous
system, and thus easing pain.
St. John's wort oil
I rub St. John's wort oil,
scented with essential oil of lavender, liberally onto any
part of me, or anyone else, that hurts. This simple
remedy is especially helpful for the relief of any kind of
muscular or neurological pain.
Willow bark tincture
20-30 drops of willow bark tincture is usually an
effective dose to ease the pain and inflammation of
arthritis and rheumatism, as well as headaches and muscle
aches and pains.
Rose is a soothing
pain reliever, and any part, whether used fresh, or as an
infused or essential oil, tea, tincture, glycerite, or
flower essence will assist in the alleviation of any
physical or emotional pain.
Angelica is rich in constituents that quiet the nervous
system, is grounding and helps establish ease. Anti
inflammatory agents make it one of my favorite allies for
alleviating arthritic aches and pains, and itís
antispasmodic, so eases menstrual or muscular cramps.
Anti-inflammatory herbs are brimming with salicylates and/or
steroids. They can also be nourishing, immune
strengthening, bone building, and hormonal balancing.
The buds, leaves, and bark of willow, birch, poplars, black
haw, and wintergreen are all rich in salicylates, and so
pain relieving and anti-inflammatory. Vinegar is an
excellent menstrum for extracting the salicylates, one
teaspoon being equal to one aspirin.
Sipping ginger syrup or applying a warm ginger poultice
will help ease the pain and inflammation of arthritic
joints. Sweat lodges, saunas, water baths, and steam
baths, especially when using ginger, are all deeply
penetrating and initiate healing energy.
The roots of ginseng, angelica, wild yam, and black
cohosh are rich in anti-inflammatory steroids. 20-30
drops of tincture made from the fresh or dry roots of any of
these herbs helps ease sore, painful joints.
Synthesized steroidal drugs, unlike natural herbs, often
have a negative impact on the immune system, and are known
to stimulate osteoporosis.
Equal parts of black cohosh, wild yam, and St. John's wort
tinctures are highly recommended for relieving back ache (20
drops as needed).
Relaxation therapies are vitally important to those who
suffer chronic pain. Meditation, deep breathing exercises,
and visualizations are all techniques that can be utilized
for pain relief. Gentle, low-impact exercise, such as
walking and gardening, is also an important ally for those
whose pains are chronic, because exercise releases
feel-good, mood-enhancing, anesthetizing chemicals such as
endorphins, and helps to keep our body limber, flexible, and
Excerpt from Traversing the Wild Terrain of Menopause;
Herbal Allies for Midlife Women and Men by Gail Faith
2003 Gail Faith Edwards
Do not copy without author's permission