For thousands of years, humans have used an unusual item for pain relief: the bark of a tree. Willow bark from the black, white, and purple varieties of willow tree contains salicin, a chemical similar to the one synthesized for aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid).  Patients from Rome to China to Europe were advised to chew on the bark to release its analgesic properties.

Today, willow bark is dried, powdered, or made into a tincture and used for treatment of the following conditions:

  • Headache: Some studies have shown that willow bark may have slightly lower incidence of upset stomach than other analgesics such as ibuprofen, but there is not enough conclusive evidence to support this. Still, willow bark has been proven effective in the relief of headache pain and does not prove to be more upsetting to the stomach than over-the-counter medicines. 
  • Low back pain: In a double-blind study of 200 people, a high dose of willow bark was shown to significantly decrease pain in the lower back. A higher dose (240 mg) was measurably more effective than a lower dose (120 mg), but both doses offered pain relief. 
  • Osteoarthritis: In addition to salicin, willow bark has polyphenols and flavinoids that offer anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. These two components, when combined with salicin, offer significant relief from the pain of osteoarthritis. 

There is also some anecdotal evidence that willow bark helps with menstrual cramps, tendonitis, bursitis, and flu but not enough scientific evidence to prove its effectiveness. 

Safe Dosing Levels

Children under the age of 16 should not take willow bark for back pain at all due to the risk of developing Reye syndrome. Adults can drink a tea of 1-2 teaspoons of willow bark in 8 ounces of water 3-4 times daily, 60-240 mg of powdered willow bark in capsule form daily, or 4-6 mL of tincture 3 times daily.

As always, consult your doctor before taking any new medications, as serious interactions and side effects can occur. Side effects may include gastrointestinal upset, and pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take willow bark.

Would you try willow bark for back pain?

Image by Tony Hisgett via Flickr

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