Use of Herbal Therapies to Relieve Pain: A Review of Efficacy and Adverse Effects

James H. Wirth, BA; J. Craig Hudgins, BA; Judith A. Paice, PhD, RN


Pain Manag Nurs. 2005;6(4):145-167. 

In This Article

Abstract and Background

To find holistic treatment with effective pain relief and few side effects, Americans spend billions of dollars annually on complementary and alternative medicine, including herbal therapies. Despite extensive use, the lack of regulatory scrutiny of these herbal supplements contributes to the paucity of reliable clinical data assessing their efficacy and safety. This review summarizes the existing studies investigating the efficacy of herbal therapies as a treatment for pain. Possible side effects, potential drug–herb interactions, and information about common herbal therapies are also summarized. MEDLINE, AMED, and the Cochrane Library databases were searched for the period from January 1966 to June 2005. Uses, dosages, routes of administration, and side effects were summarized. Strength of empirical evidence also was evaluated. This review found few well-controlled clinical studies. Furthermore, these studies documented limited efficacy of herbal therapies to treat pain. The information presented here may be used to further educate nurses and patients on the use of herbal therapies as well as direct future research efforts.

Patients experiencing pain may try numerous therapies, including conventional and alternative approaches, for relief. Pain relief is the most frequently cited reason that people seek complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) (Astin, 1998). CAM encompasses therapeutic treatments such as relaxation, meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, imagery, chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy, and herbal therapies. A 2002 study conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine surveyed 31,044 adults and found that 36% of respondents used some form of CAM therapy during the last 12 months (Barnes, Powell-Griner, McFann, & Nahin, 2004). These therapies might be chosen because other conventional therapies were previously ineffective or produced side effects that were intolerable. Therefore, clinicians must be aware of CAM therapies used to treat pain to answer questions from patients effectively and to avoid possible interactions with medical (drug) therapies prescribed for patients.


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