As a naturopathic physician, there is nothing more satisfying than helping patients alleviate pain with natural pain ­relievers — especially since these have few of the adverse effects of pharmaceutical medications.

More than 30 million Americans take conventional painkillers daily for a variety of ailments, including arthritis, headaches, sore muscles and back or neck pain. While these drugs are good at temporarily relieving pain, they all have unhealthful side effects, particularly when used over time for chronic conditions. They can irritate the stomach, cause stomach and intestinal ulcers and increase heart disease risk.

Fortunately, there are natural pain relievers that work as well as, or better than, these drugs, and they are much gentler on your body. I last wrote extensively on natural ways to curb pain in Bottom Line Natural Healing in 2006, but there are even more natural pain remedies to tell you about now. I prescribe the herbs described on the next pages for patients with a variety of ailments. I believe that they can help you, too. Caution: Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take these remedies, because they have not been studied in these populations.

Strategy: For chronic pain involving any of the conditions in the table below, take the first painkiller listed for that condition for four weeks. If you notice an improvement, stay with it. If not, try the next one (if there is one).

Try the following herbs — which are all available at health-food stores or online — for the conditions listed…

Devil’s Claw

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), a shrub found in southern Africa, works similarly to many pharmaceutical pain relievers — by blocking the action of pain-­promoting compounds in the body — but without damaging the digestive tract. In studies involving people with chronic low back pain, devil’s claw extract proved as effective as prescription pain relievers.

Dose: Devil’s claw extract is available in capsules. Look for 1.5% to 2.0% harpagoside, one of the active ingredients. Take 1,000 milligrams (mg) three times daily of a standardized extract. Recommended brand: Nature’s Way Standardized Devil’s Claw Extract (800-962-8873, http://naturesway.com). The only significant potential side effect is diarrhea.

Curcumin

Curcumin (diferuloylmethane), a constituent of turmeric, is the pigment compound that gives the spice its distinctive yellow coloring. In one study of rheumatoid arthritis patients, 1,200 mg daily of curcumin extract improved morning stiffness and joint swelling.

Dose: Take 500 mg of standardized turmeric extract (containing 90% to 95% curcumin) three times daily. Recommended brands: New Chapter Turmericforce (800-543-7279, www.newchapter.com) and Life Extension Super Curcumin (888-771-3905, www.lifeextensionvitamins.com). It has blood-thinning properties, so do not take curcumin if you take blood-thinning medication, such as warfarin, unless monitored by a physician. Avoid this: If you have gallstones, because curcumin can cause gallstones to block bile ducts.

White Willow Bark

This pain reliever has anti-inflammatory and blood-thinning benefits similar to those of aspirin, but unlike aspirin, it doesn’t appear to damage the stomach lining. For centuries, the bark of the white willow (Salix alba), a tree found in Europe and Asia, was noted for its pain-relieving qualities. Its active ingredient is salicin, which the body converts to salicylic acid, a close cousin to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid).

Dose: Take 120 mg daily of white willow bark extract capsules. If this amount does not reduce pain, try 240 mg. Recommended brand: Solaray White Willow Bark (800-579-4665). Avoid this: If you have an aspirin allergy and for one week before undergoing surgery. White willow bark is a blood thinner, so take it only while being monitored by a physician if you take blood-thinning medication.

Boswellia

Part of India’s Ayurvedic healing tradition, boswellia (Boswellia serrata) comes from a tree found in India, Northern Africa and the Middle East. The tree yields a milky resin containing boswellic acids, substances that inhibit the body’s synthesis of inflammatory leukotrienes. A study of patients with knee arthritis found that boswellia extract relieved pain and stiffness as well as daily doses of the prescription drug valdecoxib (Bextra). And boswellia’s benefits persisted for one month longer than those of Bextra.

Dose: Take 750 mg of a standardized extract containing 60% to 65% boswellic acid two to three times daily for as long as symptoms last. Recommended brand: Solgar Boswellia Resin Extract (877-765-4274, www.solgar.com). While generally safe, boswellia has been known to cause occasional mild digestive upset.

Natural Pain Relievers

CONDITION
PAIN RELIEVERS TO TRY*

 

Headache (tension or migraine) White willow bark
Inflammatory bowel disease Boswellia, Curcumin
Low back pain
Devil’s claw, White willow bark, Curcumin
Muscle aches and pain
White willow bark, Curcumin
Menstrual pain
White willow bark
Osteoarthritis
Boswellia, White willow bark, Devil’s claw
Rheumatoid arthritis
Boswellia, Curcumin, Devil’s claw
Tendonitis
Devil’s claw, Curcumin, White willow bark
*Take the first painkiller listed for your condition for four weeks. If it doesn’t work, try the next one (if there is one).

References: S. Chrubasik, et al., “Study with Doloteffin (Devil’s Claw) for Low Back Pain,” Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy & Phytopharmacology (2005).

S. Sontakke, et al., “Clinical Trial of Boswellia Serrata Extract as Compared to Valdecoxib in Osteoarthritis of the Knee,” Indian Journal of Pharmacology (2007).