This post is a belated addition to the April UK Herbarium blog party - better late than never!
It took me years to appreciate the subtleties of pain. My first insight came from discussing different methods of pain control during labour with an anaesthesiologist as part of a year long study of parentcraft classes offered by our local community midwifery services. We talked about relaxation techniques, drugs, tens machines and an innovative offering of acupuncture.
I knew about gas and air – it was my only pain relieve when my three children were born. Later I learned that pethidine was also a common form of pain relief offered at accident scenes and in ambulances with the dangers of addiction. Individuals would be blacklisted by the service if they appeared to be asking for the drug for very minor incidents.
Later, I became involved with facilitating patient feedback from a pain clinic. Once more there was a hierarchy of distraction, relaxation and acupuncture before the drugs and nerve blocks were offered. It is interesting that my sister has gained great benefit from the acupuncture offered at her local pain clinic in Derby, something she wasn’t expecting when it was first offered!
Some years ago I attended a lecture on pain management from the medical director of our local hospice when I started to become involved in the development of end of life services. He talked about the two different pain trees – aspirin and paracetamol /opiate derivatives and the importance of understanding the source of the pain before offering something to help the individual cope.
He also stressed the involvement of emotional and spiritual aspects to pain – something you don’t expect to hear about in a post-graduate lecture theatre – but which hospice doctors are often adept in discovering and helping with because they take time to talk to their patients and are not afraid to discuss the most difficult subjects. Even more importantly, they take time to listen.
It really should come as no surprise to learn we hold emotional pain within different areas of our bodies. This is very evident from research done on back pain. I remember a talk from a skilled osteopath, who told the story of a lady who came to him with chronic back problems. As he worked on her back, she told him how unhappy she had become since her husband retired. Their time together was nothing like she imagined it would be and his invasion of what had been her personal space and activities because he no longer had anything else to do, was proving intolerable.
Once she identified her “real problem”, her back pain disappeared, helped not only by the osteopath’s skills but his ability to listen and support her in talking about her situation.
Aches and pains should never be ignored. They are messages from the body to tell us something is happening or needs to happen. Hopefully those messages allow us to act before pain becomes so intense we lose the ability to function. Everyone is different. Everyone responds to pain in a different way.
Having observed the difference in response to pain in my family and Chris’ family, I have come to the conclusion some of it is neurological – some people’s nerves are closer to the surface and are more vulnerable – and some is learned behaviour. It is much easier to deal with pain with a calm demeanour rather than rushing around shrieking as if the world were ending!
So where do herbs come in to all this?
As always, herbs can be fantastic allies within a regime to support the whole person. Where aches and pains are concerned I would actually extend the whole person concept to the whole family. Being emotionally attached to someone in pain can be the most difficult thing anyone has to endure. You cannot bear their pain for them, however much you wish to.
The guilt and concern of being pain free when someone else is hurting also needs to be addressed and supported. Nervines can be helpful in this situation – chamomile, lemon balm, motherwort, skullcap and even St John’s wort as either teas or tinctures can be helpful in stressful situations. Remember that children are able to cope much better with either their physical or emotional pain if the person who cares for them is perceived to be strong.
Pain often comes from muscle tension or spasms. Anything which eases the tension either through warmth, relaxation or massage can be extremely helpful. No household should be without a hot water bottle and/or a wheat pillow which can be heated and laid over the affected part.
Fomentations and poultices can also be used in the same manner – chamomile, mustard, horseradish, ginger – always remembering to check the area regularly to prevent skin blistering.
Many herbs can provide relief when administered in a soothing massage oil or salve.
Dandelion flower oil is useful for a light muscle massage. Last year I went to give a herb talk at a sheltered housing complex. One of the women asked if I had anything for the pain in her shoulder. The only oil I’d taken with me was dandelion flower, so I gave her the salve and told her to rub it in and see what happened. She reported the pain eased considerably.
Rosemary is a favourite for soothing back massages. A German friend of mine is a professional oboist. His orchestra pit is very cramped as it is almost underneath the stage and he has to hold the same position for long periods whilst he is playing. He suffers with severe back aches and pains which have been greatly helped by his wife massaging him with rosemary oil. I made them a selection of St John’s wort, angelica and rosemary oils to take home with them one year and before we met the following year, they requested another batch of rosemary oil!
Golden rod infused oil can be another help in deep muscle massage.
Where pain has a nerve component such as sciatica, St John’s wort and rosemary oil blended together can bring relief. If there is also an inflammatory element, St John’s wort and meadowsweet can bring relief.
Pain from inflammation also needs to be treated internally. I’ve found plantain, calendula and turmeric to be especially helpful here. Sage and elderflower can often be used for their cooling effects.
Where muscles are actually spasming, crampbark can be helpful. When dealing with period pains, Howie Brounstein pointed out that menstrual pain is a bit like having bitters in our diet - you want to know our abdominal muscles are working at maximum capacity to ensure they are removing the womb lining in the most efficient way. To remove the pain entirely, to lose any efficacy of their function is actually counter productive.
If you do suffer with monthly or occasional problems, I would suggest reading the relevant chapters of Carol Wood's book, "The Woman's Guide to Herbal Medicine" which is available online. Her chapter on menstrual problems is very comprehensive, giving ideas for dietary changes, exercises and herbal supplements which can help with PMT and menstrual pain. She suggests cutting out wheat and wheat products for a month if you have a tendency towards bloating and says that severe pain can sometimes be cause by lack of calcium which can be helped with calcium supplements.
If the muscle spasms are in your legs, then crampbark tincture and magnesium supplements can be helpful. If the spasms could be of a nervous origin, you may want to try a gentle nervine. A friend of mine was suffering with spasms in her upper abdominal muscles recently. She came to one of the talks I was giving for the Mercian Herb Group where various tinctures were handed round for people to try. She liked the motherwort tincture so much, I gave her the bottle to take home with her and she told me recently the spasms are much diminished.
Pain can also come from joint damage or disintegration. Matthew Wood and Jim Macdonald have been doing a lot of work with using mullein root for straitening the spine and solomon’s seal for supporting the regeneration of mucous membranes and cartilage around joints. You can find Jim’s excellent discussion papers on the two herbs here
During the February workshop, one of the participants created a salve for her frozen shoulder with Solomon’s seal root, plantain and St John’s wort oil. She emailed me later in the week to say she had used it and been able to sleep without pain for the first time for weeks.
One of my apprentices also created an arthritis salve during the previous year’s salve workshop. He used plantain, ginger, SJW and meadowsweet. He gave it to his father for the arthritis in his hands. His father reported the salve had been the most effective pain-resolver he had ever used. His mother in law also tried it and found it helped her arthritis as well.
Children can also suffer joint pain. Most parents will be woken in the night at some stage of their child’s development by screams relating to “my knees hurt”. In my pre-herbal days, I soon learned that wrapping the offending joint in firm bandages was just as effective as a dose of Calpol and today I would also massage with St John’s wort oil. Some children also benefit from physiotherapy to help them stretch their limbs, especially if they have excessive “growth spurts”.
This has been a long post, but aches and pains are a complex area of study. I haven’t mentioned using Californian poppy or our own field poppy which will soon be gracing the fields. I have not used them yet, but maybe, one day, I shall have stories to share about these plants.
In conclusion, the next time you find yourself or your loved one in pain, it may be helpful to answer the following questions.
How did this pain arise?
Will it feel better if I rub it, warm it or cool it?
Will it feel better if I gently stretch or move around?
Who might be my herbal ally at this point in time?
How can I help myself relax/rest?
And when the pain is diminished, ask yourself what you have learned!