Natural Pain Busters

Date: May 1, 2008      Publication: Bottom Line Tomorrow      Source: Mark A. Stengler      Print:

For your aching head…muscles…and arthritis, too

When something hurts, you want to feel better quickly. Often that means reaching for an over-the-counter or prescription drug. But there are natural pain stoppers that offer the same relief—without the risks.

Aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil) can
both cause intestinal bleeding…
acetaminophen (Tylenol) can lead to
liver damage…powerful prescription
pain relievers, such as acetaminophen-hydrocodone (Vicodin) and acetaminophen
with codeine, may make you drowsy and can be addictive.

Despite the dangers, these medications are valuable for treating occasional severe (long-lasting) or acute (sudden, but stopping abruptly) pain. But for many chronic conditions that need ongoing relief, such as osteoarthritis, natural pain stoppers work just as well with a much lower risk for side effects.

Caution: Severe pain, or mild pain that gets suddenly worse, can be a sign of a serious injury or other medical problem. Best: Seek medical attention immediately.


For each common pain problem discussed here, I give more than one treatment. You may have more success with, or simply prefer, a particular treatment. If something has worked for you in the past, start there. If you don’t get much relief from a treatment, try another option. If you get only partial improvement, try adding another supplement. Because natural remedies have a very low risk for serious side effects, it’s usually safe to use them in combination with prescription or nonprescription medications, such as for high blood pressure—and over the long run, they can help reduce the need for these drugs entirely. Check with your doctor before starting a natural regimen or changing your drug regimen.

Natural remedies also work well in combination with pain-relieving “body work,” such as chiropractic, physical therapy and acupuncture.


Migraines and other headaches are often set off by food sensitivities—most commonly, to red wine, caffeine, chocolate and food additives, such as monosodium glutamate. Other triggers, such as lack of sleep or hormonal fluctuations, can also leave you with headache pain. Best: Pay attention to patterns and avoid your triggers.

Fortunately, headaches are usually very responsive to natural remedies…

  • Mild (tension) headaches. First, try acupressure. This ancient Chinese technique uses gentle pressure and light massage on
    specific points.

In traditional Chinese medicine, chi (chee) is the vital energy of all living things. Your chi flows along 12 meridians that run through your body and nourish your tissues. Each meridian is associated with a particular organ, such as the liver or gallbladder. Along each meridian are specific points, designated by numbers, that are the spots where the flow of chi can be affected. For headaches, the standard acupressure points are…

  • Gallbladder 20—the small indentation below the base of the skull, in the space between the two vertical neck muscles. Push gently for 10 to 15 seconds, wait 10 seconds, then repeat five to 10 times.
  • Large intestine 4—located in the webbing between the thumb and index finger. Push gently for 10 to 15 seconds (as described above). Do this on one hand, then switch to the other.
  • Yuyao—the indentation in the middle of each eyebrow (straight up from the pupil). Push gently for 10 to 15 seconds (as described above) on both points simultaneously.

If you don’t feel relief within several minutes after trying a particular pressure point, move on to a different one.

Another option for mild headaches: A cup of peppermint tea, or a dab of peppermint oil on the temples, can banish a mild headache quickly. Note: Peppermint essential oil is highly concentrated—don’t take it internally.

To brew peppermint tea, make an infusion using one to two teaspoons dried peppermint leaf in eight ounces of boiling water. Let steep for five minutes. You may find relief after one cup. Drink as much and as often as necessary.

  • Migraine headaches. The herb feverfew has been used effectively for centuries to treat migraines. Take a feverfew capsule standardized to contain 300 micrograms (mcg) of the active ingredient parthenolide every 30 minutes, starting at the onset of symptoms. Maximum: Four doses daily or until you feel relief.

Prevention: Take a feverfew capsule standardized to contain 300 to 400 mcg of parthenolide—or 30 drops of a standardized tincture, either in a few ounces of water or directly on your tongue, every day. In about three months, you should notice dramatically fewer migraines, and/or less severe symptoms. Note: Feverfew may thin blood, so consult your doctor if you are taking a blood thinner, such as warfarin (Coumadin).


Natural remedies can help an aching back or sore, cramped muscles. Here, too, acupressure is valuable. Zero in on the points that are most tender and then gently press on them and release, or massage for 10 to 15 seconds, at 10-second intervals, five to 10 times. If you can’t reach a spot, have someone do it for you.

For some people, an ice pack on the affected area helps. Others prefer warmth from a hot compress or heating pad. For acute injuries, use cold (within 24 hours). Otherwise, use warmth or alternate warmth and cold. Other remedies that help sore muscles…

  • Herbal arnica cream or tincture can soothe sore muscles and is also great for bruises. It reduces swelling, which helps lessen pain. Rub a small amount on the affected area. Repeat as needed. Caution: Don’t use on broken skin because it is not intended for internal use.
  • Homeopathic Rhus toxicodendron is especially helpful in relieving low back pain. Take two pellets of 30C potency twice daily for two or three days.


The stiff, swollen joints of osteoarthritis are a major cause of doctors’ visits for people over age 45. But with natural remedies, the pain and joint damage can be kept to a minimum…

  • Glucosamine sulfate helps rebuild damaged cartilage in arthritic joints and works as well as or better than many of the drugs doctors recommend. It can take several weeks to feel the benefits. Begin by taking 1,500 to 2,000 mg daily for three months. After that, cut back to 500 to 1,000 mg daily. If symptoms worsen, go back to the higher dose. It’s OK to continue with anti-inflammatory drugs, but be sure to tell your doctor if you’re using glucosamine.
  • Boswellia, an herb used in Ayurveda, traditional medicine from India, is a powerful anti-inflammatory that’s very helpful for arthritis. Take 1,200 to 1,500 mg of a standardized extract containing 60% to 65% boswellic acids, two to three times daily.
  • Bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple stems, is very effective at reducing pain and swelling. Bromelain supplements come in two designations—MCU (milk-clotting units) and GDU (gelatin-dissolving units). Use either formula, choosing a product that’s standardized to either 2,000 MCU per 1,000 mg or 1,200 GDU per 1,000 mg. Take 500 mg three times daily between meals.

Caution: If you take a blood-thinning medication such as warfarin, skip the bromelain—it could thin your blood too much.

Any of these supplements can be used alone or in combination. Natural pain stoppers can be effective alternatives to drugs, but pain is also your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. If your pain is very sudden or severe, and/or accompanied by other symptoms—such as weakness, nausea, redness and swelling in the painful area, shortness of breath or fever—get medical attention immediately.

Source: Mark A. Stengler, ND, a naturopathic physician and leading authority on the practice of alternative and integrated medicine. He is director of the La Jolla Whole Health Clinic, La Jolla, California, and associate clinical professor at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Portland, Oregon. Dr. Stengler is author of the newsletter Bottom Line Natural Healing (800-234-3834,