For as long as there have been people on the planet they have been turning to herbs for help. There are records as far back as the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Babylon and as pain is one of the key symptoms we feel, a lot of our time has been spent trying to reduce it.

In my clinic, I work with a lot of people with osteoarthritis looking for new ways to manage their pain. We work together to reduce prescription painkillers; manage side effects or tackle related symptoms. Along with our pain management clinic and our resident osteopath, we offer a variety of support for osteoarthritis of the knee.

I am often asked if herbs are as strong as pharmaceutical painkillers. The short answer to that is no. I am often asked if people can swap one kind of pharmaceutical for a specific herb. The answer to that is also no. But can herbs help? Yes! They certainly can!

While pharmaceuticals are excellent at delivering generalised, strong pain relief, herbs excel at treating are more complex and approach the issue from several angles. What plants lack in strength, they make up for in specificity. When I ask someone about their pain, I want to know how severe it is, but also what the quality is. Is it hot? Stabbing, sharp, or tearing? Or is it dull, throbbing, and more like a toothache? Perhaps both types are present – if so when? Is the tissue cold to the touch or inflamed? Is it better or worse for damp? Does the pain feel like it is bony? Are the muscles painful? Is there tendon strain? Each answer leads me to a specific group of herbs.

We also look at diet. While there is much debate (and nonsense) written about how the acidity of the diet can affect us, in my clinical experience there are some people who find that reducing their acid intake can help improve their pain. I also note that many of them tend to have diets that may seem healthy but are high in acids. The key culprits are oranges, tomatoes and tomato-based sauces, shellfish (particularly prawns), and processed ham products. If this is ringing bells, reduce those things for a few weeks and see what happens. It won’t solve osteoarthritis, but it may be one of the layers adding to the problem.

Why not have a look at your diet and see how many of these acidic foods are in there? Do you eat a lot of one of these foods? If so, consider cutting it out to see if it makes a difference.

Another reason may be affected by your mood. Our psychological responses to pain are also key. If we are stressed, tense, or depressed we are less able to cope with pain. In my patients, it is often a lack of sleep due to breakthrough pain that starts this negative cycle. Using herbs to improve sleep, reduce stress, and improve mood does a lot to increase resilience and significantly improve quality of life.

Here are some of my top herbal tips for herbs you can try:

  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a calming herb that helps with stress relief, anxiety, reduces sensitivity to pain, and can increase the effect of analgesics.
  • Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) can help reduce intense, sharp pain in inflamed joints.
  • Horsechestnut (Aeschylus hippocastanum) is can help alleviate pain that is dull and throbbing, particularly where there is fluid in the joint.
  • Nettle (Urtica dioica) leaf reduces inflammation by helping excrete uric acid from the joints. Drinking 2-3 cups of nettle tea can resolve early signs of osteoarthritis.
  • Milk thistle (Carduus marianus) supports the liver while it copes with the pharmaceutical load. It can also help cope with constipation caused by some painkillers.

As expected, medical herbalists like myself have access to a far wider range of herbs than over-the-counter like melilot for burning, stabbing pain, fringe tree for pain with poor circulation, and guaiac as a powerful anti-inflammatory. We make up prescriptions specifically for each patient and are trained to work safely alongside pharmaceutical drugs. If you have other underlying health conditions or take other pharmaceutical medicines, be safe and speak to a medical herbalist for advice on the herbs that may help your particular situation, and never buy herbs online from an unknown source.

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