Pain Relief

Which way to go?

Amber Wilson explains the pros and cons of conventional pain killers and the natural alternatives available.

Do you instantly reach for a Panadol when you have a headache, muscular pain or perhaps something more serious? Or do you dissolve some aspirin in a glass of water?

Most of us tend to go for a quick-fix so we can get back to our everyday lives of work, parenthood and social commitments. However, painkillers can have some nasty side-effects and merely treat the effects rather than the actual causes of pain.

How do pain killers work?

Naturopath Beatrice Descamps from Western Australia says there are several classes of pain-killing medication, including narcotic analgesics like codeine and morphine, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, and paracetamol.

Aspirin is extracted from willow bark and has been used for hundreds of years to reduce fever, pain and swelling. It works by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins, which are chemicals made by the body at the problem site that send messages to the brain notifying it of pain. When we take aspirin, we absorb it into our bloodstream from our digestive systems, where it then works on the prostaglandin-producing site. Reducing prostaglandins also thins the blood, reduces inflammation and thins the stomach lining.

Paracetamol is used in brand-name pain relievers like Panadol and Tylenol. Like many medicines, paracetamol was discovered to be effective, even though it wasn’t known how it worked. Herron, a paracetamol-producing company, claims that it works by blocking the transmission of chemicals in the brain and the central nervous system to relieve pain and reduce fever. That is, it works in the brain to prevent the production of prostaglandins, whereas aspirin works at the site of pain.

Codeine is a stronger painkiller derived from opium or morphine by methylation. It’s used in conjunction with paracetamol in stronger, over-the-counter painkillers like Panadeine Forte. Codeine binds to the pain-receptor sites in the brain and spinal cord, blocking delivery of pain messages. Codeine is also used to relieve coughs and to make diarrhoea more solid.

Balancing the pros and cons

While these drugs can be extremely effective, they can also have undesirable side-effects.

“All of them have undesirable side-effects or adverse reactions and none really address the cause of the problem, which may lead to the need for life-long medication for chronic pain for people suffering from arthritis,’’ says Beatrice.

“I am personally very cautious in using any of these medications. I would only use them if absolutely necessary and only for a very short time, for example, with pain related to surgery.”

Aspirin’s action of thinning blood may be beneficial in helping to reduce stroke and heart attack, but it can also inhibit clotting for a bleeding wound. Aspirin can also upset the stomach, change the ways your kidneys make urine and may even cause some people to have trouble breathing.

The main danger associated with paracetamol use is liver damage and possibly even liver failure. However, side-effects are rare when taken in prescribed doses. Some paracetemols have also been said to cause skin rashes, blood disorders and inflammation of the pancreas if taken on a regular basis for a long time.

Side-effects of narcotics like codeine include sedation, nausea, vomiting, constipation and dependence.

Natural alternatives

Beatrice says naturopathy treats the cause of pain, rather than just the symptoms.

“By addressing the causes, we are more successful in rectifying the problem in the long-term, where people will be free from pain without the need for therapy,” she says. “The difficulty is that it takes time and self-discipline, as it usually requires changes in lifestyle, diet and attitudes.”


Beatrice says common problems leading to pain are toxicity in the body and nutritional deficiency. To eliminate toxins, naturopaths look at improving nutrition through good diet, digestion and absorption.

“In naturopathy, pain is often seen to be linked to an excess of acidity in the body,” she says. “All foods leave an ash residue after being broken down, which is either alkaline or acidic, depending on the mineral composition. When there is an excess of acidity in body tissues, the body breaks down and pain arises. The naturopathic approach is to increase intake of alkaline-forming foods – most fruit and vegetables – and reduce acid-forming foods – most protein, grain and starch foods,” she says.

In the case of headaches, dehydration is often a contributing factor. “I would recommend reducing intake of diuretics such as alcohol, coffee and black tea, and increasing water intake,” she says.


Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese technique often used for the effective management of pain. “In traditional Chinese medicine, good health is maintained and disease prevented by balancing the yin and yang and maintaining the harmonious flow of vital energy – qi – throughout the body,” says Beatrice.

“Needling specific acupuncture points along pathways called meridians can remove blockages or imbalances and restore health. Acupuncture has been researched extensively in the Western world and was proved to have several actions, including analgesic, sedative, regulatory, immune-enhancing, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, and calming [ones].”

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is one of the oldest forms of medicine. Herbal remedies are made from plants and, when prescribed by a qualified herbalist, have been shown to improve the ability of the body to heal itself.

Many pharmaceutical drugs are derived from chemicals found in plants and the plants retain their chemical constituency. “Like pharmaceutical drugs, some herbs can also be used to suppress the symptoms of pain, with little thought for the real causes of the problem,” says Beatrice. “This is discouraged, especially for long-term treatment, as it’s not in accordance with naturopathic principles. However this approach is sometimes acceptable for the early stage of treatment to provide relief before the causes of pain have been addressed.”
Beatrice says even herbs with analgesic – pain-relieving – properties are still gentler on the body with fewer side-effects. For example, chamomile calms muscle tissue and bromelain works as an anti-inflammatory, while meadowsweet can help physical strain or rheumatism.


Feldenkrais is based on the idea that the central nervous system plays a major role in physical comfort. By being aware of our skeletal and muscular alignment, we can alleviate discomfort and pain. Conditions that have been treated effectively with feldenkrais include arthritis, whiplash and neck pain. The idea is to align our bodies and restore our posture. It’s a gentle technique used by many pain management clinics.

The verdict

Beatrice recommends treating the causes, rather than just the symptoms of pain.

“In most cases I believe that it is better to try natural approaches first for pain relief,” she says.

“But there is no one-fit-all approach to natural pain relief. We are all different and will respond to natural therapies differently. The best thing is to try different options, be in tune with our body and notice what suits us or not.”

Rate This

Average: 3.2 (13 votes)
The information presented on this website is not intended as specific medical advice and is not a substitute for professional medical treatment or diagnosis. Read our Medical Notice.