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A Holistic Approach to Pain Management

The opioid crisis has been upstaged by COVID-19, but pain is always at the forefront of many people’s minds. Levels of anxiety and depression during this difficult time have been on the rise, and because these emotions share a common pathway with pain receptors, pain levels have also increased. Whether it is simple aches and pains, arthritis, migraines, bursitis, or fibromyalgia, many of us are searching for alternatives.

For centuries in Europe a wildflower by the name Arnica montana was used to treat acne, bleeding, and pain. In traditional Native American medicine it is used for sore throats, toothaches, cuts, and bruises.

Native American tribes also use white willow bark for fevers, headaches, and arthritis. Traditional Chinese medicine has also recommended willow bark for these conditions, and so did the ancient greeks and romans. The bark, leaves, and flowers contain especially high salicin levels, which is similar to the active ingredient in aspirin.

Many natural pain remedies like arnica, willow bark, curcumin, ginger, frankincense, and cloves are available at natural health food stores, and major chain stores. Before you go out and purchase anything though, just a word (or two) of caution:

A 2015 investigation by the New York State attorney general’s office into GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart supplements tested 24 products claiming to contain seven different types of herbal medication — echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, and valerian root. Most of them had either unrecognizable or different ingredients than were on the label. Several contained wheat and two contained beans without identifying them on the labels.

Just this February the FDA advised against use of an over-the counter arthritis remedy called RMFLEX that was found to contain diclofenac, the generic form of Voltaren, which is similar to Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen).

“Natural” weight loss drugs have been found to contain prescription diet medications and laxatives. “Natural” sexual enhancement drugs have similarly been found to contain Viagra.

Another thing to consider is, if you are taking aspirin, or blood thinners like coumadin, adding willow bark, turmeric, arnica, garlic and various other supplements increases your risk of bleeding.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has a web page called “About Herbs, Botanicals and Other Products.” This is a free database with useful information about thousands of supplements. There is also a free App version called About Herbs.

US Pharmacopeia and ConsumerLab are two companies that test many foods & supplements for accuracy in labeling & safety. You can check their websites and check supplements for their seal of approval on the back.


  1. Incorporate non-pharmacological/herbal interventions for pain like mindfulness practices.
  2. Try massage therapy, which has shown health benefits for cancer patients, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain conditions.
  3. How flexible are you? Do you stretch regularly? A yoga break in the middle of your day can ease tension, stiff muscles, and anxiety.
  4. Consider Acupuncture, which has shown benefit for low-back pain, neck pain, arthritis, headaches, migraines, and even for stopping smoking.
  5. Assess your stress! Do you know your stress level? Self-care can help to manage depression and anxiety and may help to lower your pain levels.
  6. Do you need a night cap to fall asleep? Alcohol actually interferes with sleep, which makes it difficult for the normal repair process to occur. This can lead to more pain and soreness in the morning.
  7. Always remember to hydrate. Make sure your intake of water is adequate, especially during these hot summer days. Dehydration is a common cause of headaches and muscle stiffness.
  8. Looking for alternative treatment options for specific conditions? Consider these two great resources: the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Cochrane Library.
  9. Do your own research, make a list, and reach out to your primary care provider.
  10. Reaching for anything in a pill form should be done with caution, especially when it comes to pain. Even herbal remedies can cause allergic reactions, and interact with medications. At SWMI we are more than happy to go over your list, review the research, and incorporate your goals into a personalized wellness plan. We offer a free consult to get you started.

Marti Peters-Sparling, MD is a board certified Family Medicine physician and co-owner of an integrative Direct Primary Care wellness center, SWMI Health Matters. She has experience in all aspects of Family Medicine including preventative care, chronic disease management, meditation, and mindfulness. Dr Peters-Sparling seeks to meet her patients wherever they are, without judgement or bias.

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