A Primer on Pain

Pain: We all experience it once in awhile—whether it’s a pulled muscle from a rough day at the gym or it’s more chronic like lower back pain. If you’re looking for a new way to treat your aches and pains, start with these practitioner-recommended supplements and techniques.

Back Pain

“There are standbys that are helpful for everything—including chronic pain,” says Matthew Becker, herbalist and lead practitioner at our north Boulder store. “They all increase circulation and bring healing nutrients and blood to the area to break down stagnation and inflammation.”

First off, Matthew recommends a homeopathic cream called Topricin, which should be rubbed into the affected area three times per day. He says that he gets the best results combining Topricin with a systemic anti-inflammatory such as Thorne Research’s Meriva-500, a powerful source of turmeric. “Turmeric is something I take every day because it has many powerful healing effects on the body,” he says. For back pain specifically, he combines this turmeric with an enzyme called bromelain (also from Thorne Research, if available, or Jarrow Formulas’ Bromelain 1000).

“I recommend taking three Meriva and two bromelain tablets, twice daily about an hour before a meal, since bromelain won’t work on a full stomach,” says Matthew. “Together, they exert a powerful anti-inflammatory effect.” He adds that though they are similar to Ibuprofen in their pain relief mechanism, they are much safer and more effective in the long run.

Joint/Arthritis Pain

“Weight management, physical activity that does not traumatize the joints and a low-inflammatory diet are fundamental to managing joint pain,” says Dr. Tori Hudson, ND. Eliminating allergenic foods will also very often offer significant benefits to people with rheumatoid arthritis (common offenders are wheat, corn, dairy products, beef, food additives and nightshade-family foods).

“In addition, I usually prescribe a combination of supplements with therapeutic effects for the joints.” She commonly starts with essential fatty acids like evening primrose, black currant and fish oils, then adds other nutritional supplements and herbs like boswellia and curcumin (talk to a Pharmaca practitioner for help identifying the best herbs for your joint pain). The latter—a constituent of the plant turmeric—is receiving a lot of attention and research these days for its use in arthritis pain, Dr. Hudson says. “Even in a condition as potentially daunting as rheumatoid arthritis, curcumin is showing positive benefits.”


If it’s an everyday tension headache, look for nervine calming herbs, like passionflower or chamomile, in teas or tinctures, says Sam Madeira, ND at our Seattle-Madison Park store. Kava, L-Theanine or other tension relievers from Natural Factors’ Stress-Relax line can also be helpful to relieve tension that causes headaches.

For more chronic headaches such as migraines, Sam recommends butterbur on an ongoing basis. “I like the Vitanica Butterbur Extra because it also includes B vitamins and magnesium,” says Sam. Magnesium is key to relieving all types of muscle tension.

Muscle Strains

When you pull a muscle, Sam’s go-to protocol is applying Arnica topically to the affected muscles 2-3 times per day, taking Traumeel drops to boost muscle healing internally, and soaking in an Epsom salt bath at night. “Add 2-3 cups of Epsom salts to hot water,” he says. And don’t forget about R.I.C.E.: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. “You can do that for most soft tissue injuries,” says Sam. “And as it’s healing, continue to contrast hot and cold packs to get the blood and lymphatics moving.”

If the pain is too intense, Sam says menthol or capsaicin creams can be helpful to numb the nerves. “But they can also be detrimental if you think the muscle is healed before it is, increasing the chances of reinjury,” he says. Instead, keep up with applying arnica or Traumeel more than once a day to speed the healing process and offer pain relief.

And again, make sure you’re getting enough magnesium, which can help relax muscles. Sam says to shoot for at least 300 mg per day (try Pharmaca’s new Magnesium Citrate Berry Drink for a tasty way to boost magnesium intake).

Menstrual Cramps

If cramps have you on the floor popping Ibuprofen every month, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about taking a hormone test, says Sam, since it’s possible something is out of balance.

When menstrual cramps are less severe but still bothersome, try the herbal route. Sam recommends Cramp Relief from WishGarden, which incorporates cramp bark to relieve pain, skullcap to soothe nerves, and wild yam and black cohosh to help balance hormones.

And don’t forget that stress can intensify cramps, so look to calming herbs or other stress-relief formulas to keep stress levels low. Hops, for example, “is a nervine herb but also a phytoestrogen, so it can help with both stress and the hormonal aspects of cramps,” says Sam. Find it in a tincture from Herb Pharm—or even in a few hoppy beers each week.

1 Comment

  1. marlena says:

    I have osteoarthritis, had bi lateral knee replacements over 4 yrs ago and I have more pain now than before the surgery, I also have upper back pain ( rt upper side), money is an issue, what would you recommend? I have done Chinese herbs and acupuncture to no avail and physical th.

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