Can Herbal Remedies Treat Back Pain?

If your back is killing you but you’re afraid of surgery and worried about getting hooked on prescription painkillers, a Florida researcher says a topical herbal remedy may be a better alternative.

back pain

In a commentary published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Charles Hennekens, MD, a senior academic advisor at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University, says an ointment made with capsaicin, wintergreen oil and peppermint oil can provide pain relief with few side effects.

Capsaicin , the active compound in cayenne pepper, strikes the first blow in Hennekens’s double-fisted herbal remedy. Capsaicin acts as a powerful local stimulant that, with repeated applications to the skin, reduces the body’s sensitivity to pain.

Peppermint and wintergreen oils deliver the knockout blow to lower back pain. The essential oil from wintergreen leaves contains about 98% methyl salicylate, a compound similar to the pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin. In addition, the combination of both oils may enhance the effects of each individually, enabling the use of lower doses that reduce the risk of side effects.

“If these alternative medications were equivalent or superior to the existing therapies, their lower risks may favor their more widespread use,” said Hennekens.

In the U.S., low back pain affects eight out of 10 people at some point during their lives. Treatment varies depending on the degree of the pain and includes ice packs, exercise, prescription drugs, injections, and in some cases, surgery. Hennekens says drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitors (COXIBS), offer only limited benefits for the treatment of low back pain and have both cardiovascular and gastrointestinal side effects.

Hennekens and his colleagues say healthcare providers should compare the benefits and risks of potentially promising and safer alternative treatments to conventional therapies.

“Dr. Hennekens and his colleagues are raising important issues about the efficacy and safety of different treatments for this common clinical problem,” said David J. Bjorkman, MD, a gastroenterologist and dean and executive director of medical affairs in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine.

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