Perhaps you just came back from a long mountain hike and your muscles, over-all, are achy and tired. Perhaps you simply bend over one day and rip! Your back goes out so painfully that you are lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, with severe pain even just breathing. You might be surprised that your back went out in this sudden and mysterious way: It can happen even to very athletic people. (I theorize that this could be happening because of lack of silica, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and other connective tissue-strengthening nutrients. Supplementing with these nutrients may be a very good idea, if you are prone to repeated muscular strain and ripping pains despite athletic activity).
So whether your situation is sudden and acute, long-term and painful, or just plain old ordinary and mild charley horse aches, there are things you can do without going to see your doctor.
NOTE: In acute cases, I absolutely recommend seeing a chiropractor, immediately. The acute pain may be the result of a pinched nerve or muscle, which will find zero relief with even the best of medical intervention, without first being freed from the bones, which are trapping it.
Arnica Montana, commonly known as “arnica”, is a yellow, low growing, flowering herb found in the European Alps. Among its many constituents is the sesquiterpene lactone called “helenalin,” which has the effect of stimulating local immune activity wherever it is applied. “Phagocytosis” as this immune activity is called brings healing to the local area. Thus, applying arnica oil to any sore, strained, or sprained area speeds the healing process along, reduces swelling, and the nastiest bruises will clear up much more quickly with arnica. Superb healing for even acute sprains, torn ligaments, mild to severe charley horse pain, whiplash, or muscle pain of any kind. Less effective for nerve pain.
As with any other herbs, not all arnica is created equal. It depends on the soil nutrients, the growing and harvesting methods, how it is processed, etc. The one product that I have found to be amazingly effective is the Weleda Arnica Massage Oil. It is available through your local health food store grocer. I have seen people who could not get out of bed, experience significant enough improvement in a matter of three hours to be able to move again. I also have seen people who don’t believe in herbs experience relief with this product in a very short period of time.
On the other hand, as stressed above, even the Weleda arnica massage oil will be ineffective in the case of pinched nerves. It will bring relief to spastic muscles surrounding the affected area, however, which is very important to do. Contracted muscles will only pinch the nerve/muscle even further: To relax the surrounding muscles is an important part of the therapy, alongside chiropractic intervention.
Arnica is analgesic (Pain-relieving), anti-inflammatory, and a wound healer. Use for sprains, torn ligaments, bruises, sports injuries, charley horses and muscular pain.
CAUTION: Because helanalin is mildly toxic, do not use arnica on burned, broken or abraded skin. Do not ingest internally. Use topically only.
Baking soda: While hardly considered a herb, this naturally-occurring salt has the power to draw out lactic acid from aching muscles when added to bath water. The lactic acid is responsible for the stiffening and/or spasming of muscles, a protective function of the body any time there has been muscle trauma of any kind. It’s as if the body stiffens up in an attempt to prevent mobility, thus inducing rest and allowing time for the muscles to heal. Any time there has been impact, over-exertion, strain, whiplash, or other muscular trauma, the lactic acid builds up like a splint, to induce rest. But it also causes pain and spasming. Happily enough, there is relief to be had, and even severe backache pain can be improved (though not completely cured) by a baking soda bath.
To a tubful of hot water, add one cup of ordinary baking soda. Soak in the hot water to release any tension in the muscles. (If you have heart problems, use warm water instead).
Use this for backache, whiplash injuries, and neuro-muscular pain.
St Johns Wort Oil Note that I specify the oil extract in this case, not the regular alcohol or glycerin extract. The reason is that oil and water constituents in each herb are very different from each other, each with different actions. St Johns Wort *oil* is a highly effective topical anti-inflammatory, thanks to its high flavonoid content. I recommend the Gaia brand (available at health food stores), because that company is of good quality (although HerbPharm and other products are also very good).
St Johns Wort *tincture* (not oil) has many benefits above and beyond its anti-inflammatory effects, including mild anti-viral activity (thanks to flavonoids) and as an effective anti-depressant. It has been extensively studied as an anti-depressant herb, with literally thousands of clinical tests, trials et al having been done. It is as widely used in Germany for depression as Prozac is in America.
Contra-indications: St. Johnswort raises a series of liver enzymes, called P450 and CYP 3A4, which will break down and reduce the effectiveness of a very long list of mainstream medications. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to be sure there is no drug-herb interaction if using St. Johnswort. Topical application of the oil imposes a lower risk than internal consumption, but caution is still merited. In a few people, St Johnswort may cause light sensitivity, with skin rashes resulting from light exposure. In that case, discontinue use. In most people it is not a problem.
Hypericum Perforatum is the homeopathic derivative of St. Johnswort. It is used as nerve anti-inflammatory and for nerve injuries internally, without any drug-herb interactions noted. A 30C potency will span the mind and body systems. Lower dosages such as 6C will affect mostly the body, and higher dosages work on the mental level.
Chamomile compress: Chamomile has anti-spasmodic effects when applied topically. Make a very strong tea out of it, using one full cup of the dried flowers to a small potful of water. Strain, pour over an old towel, and apply directly to the affected area after the compress is sufficiently cooled to be applied without burning the skin, but still hot enough to be therapeutic. Place a dry towel over the wet one to trap the steam and keep the compress warm. You can also use a hot water bottle or electric heating pad to keep it warm, but note that the chamomile may stain (yellow), so keep it covered with an older towel as above.
Chamomile also has anti-nauseant effects plus sedative action, thus being very effective in cases of stomach flu and safe for children to use. The Roman chamomile is very similar in action to the German variety, but lacks the gently anti-septic action of the German plant.
Rare allergic reactions to any members of the aster family (of which Chamomile is a member) may result in skin rashes. In that rare case, discontinue use. Chamomile is virtually non-toxic and is safe for ingestion in large quantities, so long as there are no allergic reactions.
Devil’s Claw has been shown to be generally well tolerated and makes an effective substitute for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, without the gastro-intestinal side effects. Its actions are anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, analgesic and sedative. Extracts are always much more potent than the tablet or capsule version of any herb.
Comfrey leaf has a significant amount of allantoins, which promote wound healing. Allantoins also promote cell proliferation, thus helping scarring to occur properly as a way to seal off any wound and let the healing begin. The herb is an excellent anti-inflammatory, making it highly effective in relieving muscle aches and pains of all kinds. Everything from plantar fascitis (painful feet caused by tissue thickening), backache, muscle ache, inflammation, and burns will benefit from comfrey salve or compresses being applied.
The combination of its wound-healing, anti-inflammatory, and demulcent action in which digestive organs are coated with a gel-like liquid shield, makes it excellent in cases of digestive ulcers (see important cautions below, as internal consumption of the herb can lead to liver damage, if used for the long term). Externally, the leaf extract soothes muscle aches and pains.
CAUTION: In his book Medical Herbalism, master phythotherapist David Hoffmann writes that “Care should be taken (when comfrey is applied to) very deep wounds, as external application of comfrey can cause tissue to form over the wound before it is healed deeper down, which can lead to abscess”. VERY IMPORTANT: Comfrey contains pyrrolizzidine alkaloids, or PA’s, which can cause arteries in the liver to contract, resulting in liver disease. They also are carcinogenic in large doses. According to David Hoffmann, “An average cup of comfrey leaf tea contains 8.3 mg alkaloid,” a relatively low dose. Thus, side effects require large and long-term doses of the herb, and while absorption of the PA’s through the skin occurs in small doses, it is still wise to be cautious. Be sure to purchase comfrey from your health food store grocer marked PA-free or pyrrolizzidine alkaloid-free. Note however, that it is not possible to remove all traces of PA’s and that internal use of the herb needs to be done with caution, not for the long-term.
Hellerwork can be very helpful in re-aligning the entire musculo-skeletal system. Practitioners offer individualized posture and body mechanics instruction, which is invaluable in preventing relapses. Faulty weight placement and other poor posture habits can result in muscle strain and contraction, causing vulnerability to repeated back misalignment as well as to neuromuscular injuries. Hellerwork is very similar to Rolfing, in which fascia or clear cellophane-like tissue surrounding muscles, is thinned out to enhance freedom of movement. (It takes an expert practitioner to know where fascia needs to be thinned, and where it is in optimal condition and should be left alone). As fascia becomes thickened and glued due to impact and other injuries, muscles are rendered much less moveable than before. Because muscles hold the bones in place, this muscular stiffness affects alignment and joint movement. To free glued or thickened fascia is important to optimal freedom of movement and to back alignment, each alike. Contra-indicated in cancer and other conditions: See the Client Handbook for further information, and to locate a licensed practitioner in your area, at www.hellerwork.com
Chiropractic care (or Hellerwork, take your pick) is indicated any time you have repeated back injuries, pain or alignment problems. A good chiropractor will give you core strengthening and other exercises designed to target the muscle group which needs strength and flexibility training in your particular case. This helps your body to maintain the alignment that your chiropractor is working toward in adjusting your body. As mentioned above, if a nerve is pinched there can be agonizing pain which will never resolve with even the most expert of medical intervention, until the pinched nerve or muscle is freed from the bones which are trapping it. Chiropractic is usually not painful as many inexperienced patients may fear. In fact, in most cases it is completely pain-free. There may be a few cases in extremely painful conditions when the adjustment may cause short-lived pain, but there are techniques used by chiropractors to minimize this (such as massaging or otherwise working on muscles to soften them prior to adjustment) and it is a short-lived moment, followed by steady improvement with continued adjustments thereafter. The agony of living with a pinched nerve, often immobilizing in pain levels, usually far surpasses any short-lived pain during adjustment. Again most chiropractic adjustments are pain-free, unless the body already is in severe or disabling pain. It is in exactly the latter condition that therapy is required for long-term release from pain.
Find a licensed chiropractor here: www.chiroweb.com/locator/
Chiropractic neurology is an interesting specialty of its own. Post-graduate chiropractors train as neurologists, targeting brain centers via joints which communicate with specifically correlating areas of the brain. Cognitive exercises and movement rejuvenate brain function, and herbal/nutrient supplementing is also part of the work. They are very sharp diagnosticians too! Find a doctor here: www.acnb.org
Yoga is extremely effective in strengthening and creating flexible core torso muscles, which support your back and indeed all of the body. For anybody suffering back pain, I highly recommend a combination of chiropractic, yoga, and any core-strengthening exercises prescribed specifically for you by your chiropractor. Note that your back will slip out of alignment again and again, so long as these supportive muscles are weak. Take good care of them. And, swim a lot!
Note: If doing any of the exercises below causes discomfort or pain, stop immediately and consult your physician or chiropractor.
Core strengthening exercise: Lie down on your back, feet flat on the floor with your knees pointing up to the ceiling. Just relax to let any muscle spasms go. Give yourself a few minutes and just breathe. Then, still in the same position, tuck your belly in toward your back, holding to a count of seven. Release the abdominal muscles, tucking your knees up to your chest and holding them there with your arms. In that balled-up position, count to seven again. Repeat the whole sequence ten times. Do three times daily and combine with yoga exercises for superior effect.
Dolphin swim exercise: This exercise is most beneficial for people who are habitually stooped forward, and for elderly people whose posture has gone in that direction. Muscles in the back will be strengthened while those in front, shrunken by the forward-stooping posture, will be stretched, thus normalizing muscle balance so as to support an upright position.
Lie down on a rug or floor mat, on your abdomen. Gradually lift your head and feet off the floor, slowly, slowly. As you do so, make sure the space between each vertebra is opened up, not compressed. Thus, as you lift your head and feet, you are stretching instead of balling up. Your hands will come up alongside your body, pointing straight behind you. Once you have raised your head and feet as far off the floor as you can comfortably sustain, bring your hands out behind you, pointing up toward the ceiling. Do not let the shoulder blades rise! Keep them down low! Now, wiggle your torso from side to side, like a dolphin swimming along. Keep your feet, head and hands off the ground, and your shoulder blades low. This is a remarkably strengthening exercise! It’s important to follow it up with a gentle stretch:
Yoga roll Sit in a lotus position on the floor or rug or mat. With your hands clasped behind your back, gently lift your head up toward the ceiling, then gently stretch it forward. Go one neck vertebra at a time, in an upward-then-forward motion. Go VERY SLOWLY. Keep going, one vertebra at a time, until your entire back has been stretched in this upward-forward motion, until you end up curled in a ball on the floor. You will feel wonderfully limber and free afterwards, if you have done this exercise correctly and without pushing yourself too hard. Remember: Go easy! This is not about stretching and pain. It’s about ease and gentleness. The lift between each vertebra, combined with the new-found limber muscles, will feel just wonderful!
Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia by Elizabeth Williamson, BSc, PhD, MRPharmS, FLS (herbal pharmacist). Superb, quick-reference format for each individual herb includes a lay-friendly description of each herb’s action, along with a listing of chemical herbal constituents and clinical tests of interest to your doctor. NOTE: Another book with the same title exists. Be sure to get Elizabeth Williamson’s version. It is superb and very handy to show your doctor to ask questions about drug-herb interactions, based on the chemical ingredients listed for each herb.
Pocket Guide to Herbal Medicine by Karin Kraft, MD and Christopher Hobbs, LAc lists each herb individually, compares effectiveness of each herb with mainstream drugs, gives full disclosure, references chemical ingredients of herbs and clinical tests/studies, drug-herb interactions, and more. It also spells out specific treatment methods such as herbal poultices, dosages, extracts, and other therapeutic methods. Small and handy reference book. Karin Kraft is to Germany what the FDA is to America: She spearheads that organization in Germany. Christopher Hobbs, licensed acupuncturist, is considered the world-top authority on herbal therapy and is a consultant to the health industry worldwide. (He also raves about the Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia).
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann is an enormous volume written very in-depth, using much medical and herbal technical language. I recommend this for herbalists and health practitioners only, but it’s an invaluable source of detailed scientific information. Hoffmann ranks alongside Christopher Hobbs as one of the world’s most-quoted and authoritative herbalists.
The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D a naturopathic doctor who works alongside Christopher Hobbs and is very good. This book is lay-friendly, mentioning chemical herbal ingredients in brief, while describing benefits, actions, cautions etc in lay-friendly languages in an easy reference format. This book combines herbs from the Western and some from Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions.
Hellerwork www.hellerwork.com see the Client Handbook for posture and alignment instructions
copyrite 2008 Drina Brooke, certified Community Herbalist, professional musician