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Plants and Pain: The Proof (and Lack Thereof) Behind Supplements

When it comes to controlling pain symptoms, many sufferers opt out of prescription pills and instead gravitate toward a more natural solution: herbal supplements. And it makes sense, since plants have been used for centuries as go-to remedies for a plethora of conditions. But not all supplements are as effective as touted – and some come with serious side effects.

Drawbacks to Herbal Supplements

Herbal supplements aren’t held to the same rigorous standards as that of traditional medications.[1] That means that, according to the journal Surgical Neurology International, “some manufacturers inflate products’ claims and may not cite possible side effects and potential drug interactions.” And while they are still inspected by government agencies, since they are considered a food item, their preparation is not standardized, meaning the true concentration of the drug may vary between brands – and even sometimes within a brand.

This lack of regulation and standardization has made it difficult for researchers to study the true effectiveness and potential side effects of these natural remedies. However, there is initial, promising research for various supplements, although more research is needed.

Commonly Used Supplements

Chronic inflammation is at the core of many pain-causing conditions. Certain herbs can help control and reduce this inflammation, aiding with both pain relief and healing. Below are a few commonly used plant-based pain remedies. Before starting any supplement, always consult your healthcare provider.

  • White willow bark: As early as 400 BC, people were utilizing willow bark to reduce pain and inflammation.[2] Its use has continued throughout the centuries and it’s now used commonly to treat such conditions as back painjoint pain, osteoarthritis, headaches and tendinitis. Willow bark works similarly to aspirin in reducing inflammation, but it isn’t accompanied by aspirin’s dangerous gastric side effects.[1] Current research on the plant has been promising, with various randomized trials demonstrating an efficacy similar to aspirin. 1[3][4] The supplement can cost more than aspirin, however, and shouldn’t be used in any situation in which taking aspirin would be dangerous.
  • Omega-3: Omega-3s (fish oil) have been used as a form of treatment since the late 18th[1] And for good reason. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have since been shown to be incredibly effective in terms of decreasing inflammation. Currently, it‘s recommended by the American Heart Association to decrease vascular inflammation and thus help in the prevention of coronary artery disease.[1] Currently research suggests omega-3s may help moderately improve such conditions as arthritis,[5][6] non-surgical back and neck pain and cervical and lumbar disc disease,[7] allowing people to rely less on NSAIDs. Unfortunately, most of the studies on omega-3s and pain are small and the topic warrants further investigation.
  • Frankincense (bowswellia serrate): Boswellia is a species of tree and the resin, more commonly known as frankincense, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic properties. It was traditionally used as a component in folk medicine to treat chronic inflammatory diseases. In more recent years, small studies have shown boswellia’s positive effects on such conditions as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.[8]

Supplements and Integrative Care

Some natural supplements on their own may provide noticeable relief of pain and inflammation. But to achieve optimal pain relief, natural supplements should ideally be paired with more conventional treatments, like physical therapy and a balanced diet, as well as interventional treatments, like injections and nerve blocks. An integrative model like this addresses pain and inflammation through a variety of channels, thereby ensuring optimal pain relief.


[1] Bost, JeffreyW, Adara Maroon, and Joseph C. Maroon. “Natural Anti-Inflammatory Agents for Pain Relief.” Surgical Neurology International 1 (December 13, 2010): 80.

[2] University of Maryland Medical Center. “Willow Bark.” August 05, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2017. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/willow-bark.

[3] Schmid, B, R Lüdtke, H-K Selbmann, I Kötter, B Tschirdewahn, W Schaffner, and L Heide. “Efficacy and Tolerability of a Standardized Willow Bark Extract in Patients with Osteoarthritis: Randomized Placebo-Controlled, Double Blind Clinical Trial.” Phytotherapy Research 15, no. 4 (June 2001): 344–50.

[4] Shara, Mohd and Sidney J. Stohs. “Efficacy and Safety of White Willow Bark ( Salix Alba ) Extracts.” Phytotherapy Research 29, no. 8 (May 22, 2015): 1112–16.

[5] The Natural Standard Research Collaboration. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Fish Oil, Alpha-Linolenic Acid.” November 01, 2013. Accessed February 9, 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/omega-3-fatty-acids-fish-oil-alpha-linolenic-acid/evidence/hrb-20059372.

[6] University of Maryland Medical Center. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” Accessed February 9, 2017. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids.

[7] Maroon, Joseph Charles and Jeffrey W. Bost. “Ω-3 Fatty Acids (fish Oil) as an Anti-Inflammatory: An Alternative to Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs for Discogenic Pain.” Surgical Neurology 65, no. 4 (April 2006): 326–31.

[8] Siddiqui, M. Z. “Boswellia Serrata, A Potential Antiinflammatory Agent: An Overview.” Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 73, no. 3 (May-June 2011): 255-261.