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Scientists Take a New Look at Ancient Remedies for Treatment of Pain


The results of a new study suggest that extracts of the herb ginkgo biloba may be effective in the treatment of neuropathic pain, a potentially debilitating condition commonly associated with nerve damage caused by injury, shingles and diabetes.

Neuropathic pain is a complex, chronic disorder in which damaged or dysfunctional nerve fibers misfire and otherwise malfunction. Although symptoms vary from person to person, neuropathic pain is often experienced as shooting pain, burning pain, tingling, numbness or extreme sensitivity to cold, heat or pressure.

Because it often responds poorly to pain medication and other standard pain management protocols, neuropathic pain has long been considered one of the most difficult types of pain to treat. When prescription drugs fail, many physicians and their patients often turn to alternative therapies for relief.

In a recent study, extracts of the herb ginkgo biloba proved to be effective in reducing symptoms of neuropathic pain. The results of the investigation were published in the June issue of the medical journal Anesthesia and Analgesia.

In the study, rats with neuropathic pain were divided into two groups. One group was treated with a standardized preparation of ginkgo biloba extract in varying doses, while the other group received a placebo.

Compared to the rats receiving the placebo, the animals treated with ginkgo biloba exhibited significant reductions in pain responses to both cold and pressure stimuli. Among the treated animals, pain responses were diminished for at least two hours, and those receiving the highest doses of ginkgo biloba experienced the greatest pain-relieving effects.

This new study provides the first scientific evidence that extracts of ginkgo biloba can effectively reduce symptoms of neuropathic pain.

Although the mechanism of action isn't fully understood, scientists speculate that ginkgo's pain-relieving properties could be a result of the herb's anti-inflammatory effects or antioxidant activity. Previous laboratory studies have shown that specific compounds in ginkgo block the actions of chemicals that injure and destroy nerve cells.

Derived from the "tree of good health," ginkgo biloba has been a major source of traditional Chinese remedies for over 4,000 years. In the United States, the herb is commonly used to enhance memory and improve circulation throughout the brain and body.

Because it has a mild anti-clotting action on the blood, it's best to use ginkgo with your physician's supervision.

Another natural substance known for its ability to ease neuropathic pain is capsaicin, the chemical compound responsible for the "heat" of hot peppers. A remarkably powerful chemical, capsaicin can be detected by the human nervous system in concentrations as low as one part in 11 million.

For centuries, the capsaicin in hot peppers has been used to add a fiery spark to recipes. For just as long, it's also been used as a medicinal agent to stimulate digestion and circulation, treat common infections and provide pain relief for a variety of conditions, ranging from arthritis to toothaches.

More recently, capsaicin has been used as an ingredient in products designed to warm hands and feet in cold weather. In high concentrations, capsaicin is extremely irritating to the skin and mucous membranes — it's the substance that makes pepper spray such an effective weapon.

Over the past decade, thousands of scientific studies have confirmed the benefits of using capsaicin creams and gels in the treatment of pain disorders, including those involving neuropathic pain. Capsaicin inhibits the action of substance P, a chemical messenger that transmits pain signals from nerve endings in the skin to the brain.

When capsaicin is applied to painful areas of the body, nerve cells are stimulated to release their entire supply of substance P. Once depleted of the substance, nerve fibers are incapable of relaying pain messages to the brain for several hours.

A team of researchers recently reviewed the results of 16 scientific studies comparing capsaicin to a placebo in more than 1,500 individuals suffering from neuropathic pain. The scientists found that after four weeks of treatment, 57 percent of patients using capsaicin gels or creams achieved significant pain reduction.

Used as directed, topically applied capsaicin creams and gels are safe and well-tolerated by most individuals. Skin irritation, burning and stinging are the most common side effects and usually improve after the first week of treatment.

Neuropathic pain is a complex disorder that often requires a multifaceted approach. When traditional treatments don't provide complete relief, natural alternatives including capsaicin and ginkgo biloba may help ease suffering and make life as enjoyable as possible.

Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her Website is To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



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