Can natural medicine be used for pain?

Lingering pain affects millions of Australians every day.

Current medications have limitations, especially in cases where the pain is unresponsive to treatment. Low risk and tolerable alternative pain relief options are sorely needed. Expanding research into natural medicine for pain as an adjunct therapy could help fill that gap, solidifying assistance with pain relief as one of the benefits of this natural medicine.

The majority of natural medicine prescriptions relate to pain. Having easeful and affordable access to legal natural medicine may reduce the burden on healthcare providers and help Aussies who need relief.

Does natural medicine work for pain?

Plants have been used to help manage pain since ancient times and now modern research is helping to gather knowledge around what parts of the plant can have pain-relieving actions.

We now know that natural medicine may also have the potential for complementary anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. Both of these therapeutic actions add to the analgesic qualities by directly or indirectly reducing pain severity.

How does natural medicine work for pain?

The chemical compounds in natural medicine interacts with numerous receptors in the human body, many of which have the potential to reduce pain, inflammation and potentially mitigate the deterioration of nerve damage that perpetuates the discomfort.

Pain and the endocannabinoid system

Part of natural medicine’s pain-reducing potential is through its influence on the endocannabinoid system. This eccentric system has an impact on pretty much every aspect of your life – from your mood and sleep to appetite and pain sensation.

The endocannabinoid system activates or inhibits sensations and perception of pain through chemical signals in the spinal cord and nervous system. The ability of natural medicine to influence endocannabinoids, neurotransmitters and other signals in the body makes it a possible therapeutic to address or mediate pain.

How natural medicine effects the central nervous system

A range of medical conditions can damage nerve fibres and areas of the central nervous system leading to neuropathic pain. Burning, tingling, and sharp or shooting sensations are common neuropathic pain symptoms.

How natural medicine reduces neuropathic pain is still under investigation, yet from animal research we understand that one of the compounds upregulates a key endocannabinoid known as anandamide (AEA). When anandamide levels are low, maladaptive processes in the nervous system can lead to hyperexcitability that increases pain and inflammation.

By increasing AEA levels with this natural treatment, it is possible to reduce the activation of pain receptors in the nervous system and modulate the signalling cascade that results in neuropathic pain.

Does natural medicine help with inflammation?

One prominent feature of inflammatory conditions are chemical molecules called cytokines. Proinflammatory cytokines are critical drivers of pain for a number of conditions.

Proinflammatory cytokines act as messengers upregulating inflammation, leading to a cascade of other inflammatory signals that create pain sensations. With its anti-inflammatory actions, natural medicine may be able to dampen the inflammatory response in some conditions.

Emerging research on natural medicine and pain

Part of the challenge with studying natural medicine is that much of the evidence is contradictory, with some research acknowledging it may help with symptoms such as pain, whilst other reviews state that the evidence available is of low quality and more comprehensive studies are needed.

How does natural medicine compare with conventional medications?

Early research suggests natural medicine could offer an alternative to commonly used pain medications where its anti-inflammatory and analgesic actions showed comparable benefits in physical pain and inflammatory cytokines measures.

NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or opioid medications are commonly used to manage lingering pain. When taken according to the instructions and medical guidance, some patients say they can be effective ways to reduce pain.

Unfortunately, these medications still have known and very real risks. Addiction and over-use of opioids continues to have devastating effects in our communities.

And, that ibuprofen in the bathroom cabinet may seem timid, but there are serious concerns surrounding increased risk for cardiovascular diseases, stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding.

Given that some Australians exceed the maximum daily dose for over-the-counter pain medications or are unaware of the side effects, cautions or contraindications, it is clear that effective alternatives are needed.

While natural medicine research is limited in some areas, studies so far suggest it is generally well-tolerated. There are also some patients who prefer a natural approach and an option when conventional pharmaceutical medicine has been tried and failed or fallen short.

However, natural medicine is not suitable for everyone. And for more severe pain or complicated conditions requiring additional management by a physician, other forms of medicine may be a viable option.