Herbal Action Series: Anodynes

Anodynes (Analgesics) are a class of herbs used for the treatment of pain.  It is probably one of the most important class of herbs to know how to use properly. I have talked a bit about my medical journey that I have been through to get to where I am now.  This journey started, way back, because of chronic pain. I have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), fibromyalgia, Osteoarthritis (OA) and, later, gastroparesis (GP).  All of these conditions initially cause a severe amount of pain.  I had been on narcotic pain medicine for more than half of my natural life. One thing that I haven’t often talked about is my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.  I never really realized that, as a young adult, my drug use was a form of self-medication.  Naturally, I have always been a hyperactive person, who was frequently told that I talked way too fast and often too loudly.  (Thankfully, for those around me, I have learned to control that…mostly!)  When I did, finally, get clean, I was diagnosed as Bipolar. It was called Manic-Depressive episodes at that time.  I was usually way more manic than depressed and could easily stay up 3 or 4 days without feeling tired or losing steam. They immediately put me on a slurry of medication, including sleeping pills.  In my mind, especially now, pharmaceutical pain medicine and sleeping pills are probably the most damaging medication that western medicine has ever developed. It has resulted in skyrocketing overdoses, abuse and ultimately, they destroy the body’s natural ability to course-correct.  I understand that if someone has cancer or other very serious issues, there may not be a choice.  However, I was told I would need them for the rest of my life.  Ultimately, the narcotics are what caused the gastroparesis, but the medical community will continue to call non-diabetic people with GP, idiopathic. As soon as I began researching this “idiopathy”, I found that there were a number of studies that showed that close to 90% of those with idiopathic GP had been on narcotics for an extended period of time, causing death of the vagus nerve ending.  Right there, I decided that if I had to, I would rather be in pain than live with not being able to eat solid food.  Everything is a choice. I began researching possible replacements to alleviate my pain.  I know that it sounds backwards but when your body hurts from chronic pain, the best thing you can do is MOVE IT! We will come back to that. Anodynes…nature almost always gives us a way. 

At first, the pain from not being on narcotics was overwhelming. There is only one “narcotic” in nature.  Marijuana (Cannabis sativa/indica)…. THC does amazing things for pain and I have talked briefly about the adaptogenic qualities of CBD. I had a life to live and kids to raise, though.  I couldn’t sit around stoned all day nor with my history did I really want to.  However, I decided that a regimen that included movement during the day and cannabis at night for the pain would work best for me to become accustomed to the pain levels because they were, most definitely, severe after being dulled for so long. So, I did.  Every day, I got out and walked or did yoga, did something to move my body and at night, I used Rick Simpson oil (RSO) which is a full spectrum cannabis oil. Thankfully, I lived in a state where medical marijuana was legal. I knew that I did not want to be reliant on any substance (especially a scheduled narcotic) permanently for any reason.  It took about 2 years for the muscle strength and flexibility to return and the CBD in the cannabis to return my body closer to a normal balance. The biggest hurdle for me was definitely the way cannabis helped the quality of my sleep. SO… this is where those wonderful anodynes come in. The beauty of anodynes is these strong hypnotic nervines in high enough doses relieve pain and provide sedation and relaxation of both skeletal and smooth muscle, without the alteration of consciousness that Cannabis causes.  Some people find that altered consciousness uncomfortable.  The obvious other “narcotic” plant is the one they derived these narcotic pills from in the first place, the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), also known as Oriental or Afghan Poppy.  Although you can grow them legally in the United States, it is a federal felony to actually harvest them for their medicine.  Although both of these plants are anodynes, I would recommend you save yourself the trouble.

Some of the best nervines that I have found with the best anodyne effects are California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Valerian (Valeriana officianalis, V. sitchensis), Hops (Avena sativa), Kava-Kava (Piper methysticum), Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and a few that even help with nerve pain: Clove (Syzygium aromaticum) works great for toothache; Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), and St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum).

This brings us to another type of pain, spasms.  If someone is having cramping, or muscle tension, they will obviously be in pain, so most hypnotics are anti-spasmodic.  However, not all anti-spasmodics are hypnotic and it is important to know which ones they are.  This way you can create both daytime formulations for pain and night time remedies that help those who have difficulty sleeping due to pain.

It is important to understand that skeletal muscle is the bulk of our stranded muscles attached to our bones and smooth muscle refers more to the inner organs of the body. Some work better for the different types of muscles but for our purposes here are some anti-spasmodic herbs that are not deeply hypnotic: Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), Cramp bark (Viburnup opulus), Lobelia (Lobelia inflata), Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), and most Carminatives in general (specifically for your gut).

As you know, we cannot talk about herbs without talking about the underlying causes for pain and the constitution of the tissues and the energetics of the patient. As always, the possible combinations of these can be many.

There are usually three common reasons for pain: inflammation, swelling (accumulation of fluid), or a lack of oxygenated blood flow. Anti-inflammatories are probably the most talked about herbal action, aside from adaptogens, due to the fact that inflammation is a huge issue in the western world. I will eventually write a blog on anti-inflammatories but some of the most common used for pain are Turmeric (Curcuma longa), White Willow Bark (Salix alba), Cat’s Claw (Unctaria tomentosa), Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum spp.). Pain due to swelling not only causes pain but the excess fluids can press on nerves as well, causing that pressure pain feeling. I experience this frequently when the cold and rain come and those arthritic joints get swollen. It would be the same for someone with an acute injury. Two of the most common I know that are used for pain from swelling are Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Pipsissewa (Chimaphilla umbellata) but other herbalists have used Celery Seed (Apium gravolens) as well. The last cause is a lack of oxygenated blood.  Blood doesn’t just carry oxygen and nutrients to the cell, it removes toxins and metabolic waste.  If there is insufficient blood flow, joints and muscles begin to hurt.  In this case, we use circulatory stimulants and rubefacients. Circulatory stimulants are aromatic herbs used commonly in Ayurveda to effect an opening of the blood vessels.  Rubefacients are most commonly applied topically to increase blood flow.  I am sure anyone with pain has used icy/hot or other muscle rubs that have this effect.  Common circulatory herbs are ones we commonly cook with that are hot and spicy, Cayenne (Capiscum annum), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and Tumeric (Curcma longa).  Topically, you can use Cayenne and Ginger, Peppermint (Mentha piperita), or apply fresh Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica).

Finally, keep in mind the state of the patient’s constitution on the spectrum we have discussed before:

Wind or tension: Anti-spasmodic

Cold or Depression: Circulatory stimulant

Heat or Excitation: Inflammation

Damp or Stagnation: Diuretics (Carminatives)

Remember that your health is holistic and it is as much related to your nutrition, how much you exercise, and your mental state, as it is the medicine you choose.  Narcotics have a place in the treatment of acute trauma but your everyday health will be managed much better if you look into plant alternatives. Keep in mind that I am not a doctor and I am not giving you medical advice.  I am simply relating my experience in the hopes that you see that you too have options. 

Shameless plug… If you feel uncomfortable making your own herbal formulas.  I sell my folk remedies that I use myself and find helpful in my Etsy store, the remedies that I discussed using today are available there.

Turmeric Decoction

Tincture of Night

Epione’s Offering Salve

Disclaimer: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. This is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. If you are under the care of a medical professional or take any medications, please check with your doctor before using any supplement or herbal preparation.

By Danielle Savage

I am a lifelong learner. I have lived experience in many, many forms but what I hold dear is my connection with the land, my spirituality, my ancestors and teaching others that there is another way to live besides the current offering!

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