With a history dating back over centuries, traditional Chinese medicine has evolved to incorporate many aspects of the healing arts. Some of the key features of Chinese medicine include alternative therapies such as acupuncture. Acupuncture is a technique that stimulates the flow of energy, or chi, through the body in a natural way to promote healing. Many of the Chinese techniques incorporate a holistic mind, body, and spirit approach. It is also typically considered complimentary and meant to be used with other approaches to maintain health or improve conditions.

One of the biggest components of Chinese medicine is the use of herbs. Chinese texts describe the use of thousands of plants as medicine. Every part of the plant; leaves, seeds, roots, stems, and flowers; are used in a variety of combinations to provide relief from various conditions or improve overall health for patients.

History of Chinese herbal medicine

A manuscript titled “Recipes for 52 Ailments” was discovered in a tomb from 168 B.C. However, most of our knowledge of Chinese herbs comes from much later, in the year 2800 B.C. An ancient book, Shennong’s Materia Medica, catalogs a variety of healing herbs. In it are over 365 herbs, and some minerals and other substances, which were and still are used in Chinese medicine. While the original book is long gone, there are multiple later translations. It includes herbs that are effective for maintaining the right balance of energy in the body with no lasting side-effects and tonics that should be taken for specific illnesses.

Many conditions that cause chronic pain can be difficult to treat with traditional Western medicine but they may respond well to Chinese herbs. Some of these pain conditions include:

  • Nerve pain: This can be caused by a number of different conditions including cancer, diabetes, or shingles. Because of the variety of causes it can be difficult to treat. Nerve pain occurs when damage happens to nerves that bring signals to the brain. When they are affected, the nerves can produce a pain sensation even when painful stimuli are not present.
  • Joint pain: This pain is generally caused when damage occurs in the tissues around the joints. This can include the tendons, ligaments, or cartilage in these areas. Joint pain can lead to range of motion issues and long-term pain.
  • Arthritis: While this condition can affect the joints, there are several types of arthritis that cause similar but different pain responses. Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, causes inflammation of the tissues around the joints. Osteoarthritis is when the protective tissues wear away over time.

There are several Chinese herbs that can help alleviate pain conditions when used in conjunction with other treatments.


While ginger is most often associated with nausea or motion sickness it is also commonly used to reduce inflammation that causes pain. Ginger works because of anti-inflammatory properties contained within its compounds. This is on top of anti-ulcer and antioxidant benefits. There is also a small amount of an analgesic property that works similarly to over-the-counter pain remedies, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

There are very few negatives effects from adding ginger to your pain fighting routine. It is considered safe for most people. Individuals who are pregnant or breastfeeding should use caution when considering taking ginger for pain. Ginger may also lower blood sugar so patients with diabetes should be cautious about its use as well.

The amount of ginger to take to help alleviate pain should be based on your specific condition and requirements. It is best to speak with a holistic practitioner or an expert in Chinese herbalism to understand the right doses and uses.


There are multiple varieties of ginseng, all of which are used in herbal medicine. However, different types have different qualities that will affect how it works. Asian ginseng appears to be the best variety for treating pain. Like ginger, ginseng has multiple uses. It is commonly taken to help with depression, stress, and anxiety. However, it has also been shown to be effective to help pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, nerve pain, joint pain, and headaches.

The biggest concerns with ginseng are insomnia, high or low blood pressure, dizziness, and itching. Because there are different varieties of ginseng available it is important to know which you are taking. Someone with a heart condition or auto-immune disorder should also take care when considering ginseng.

Because of the variety of ginseng products available on the market dosing can be confusing. A holistic expert or someone trained in Chinese medicine can help patients understand the best uses and amounts.

Ginkgo biloba

One of the oldest plants in the world, ginkgo biloba, has been used for nearly every ailment. The compounds found in the ginkgo plant include anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Ginkgo has been used to reduce inflammation in arthritis patients. It suppresses the enzymes that aid in the production of inflammation throughout the body.

An extract from the leaf of the ginkgo biloba plant is generally considered safe for everyone to use. There is some concern that gingko may cause seizures in some patients and shouldn’t be used by people who have a disorder such as epilepsy. It may also affect a patient with diabetes differently so constant monitoring may be necessary.

As with ginger or ginseng, ginkgo biloba should only be used with the proper dosing and supervision from a professional with training in herbal medicine.

Recent studies on Chinese herbs

In January of 2014 the University of California in Irvine released a study demonstrating that a compound based on Chinese medicine aided patients with neuropathic pain. They believe that this information may lead to the development of a new analgesic medication that will be safer and non-addictive.

From Dr. Olivier Civelli, Chair of Neuropharmacology:

“Today the pharmaceutical industry struggles to find new drugs. Yet for centuries people have used herbal remedies to address myriad health conditions, including pain. Our objective was to identify compounds in these herbal remedies that may help us discover new ways to treat health problems.”

Chinese herbs and medicine have not only provided a great background for herbal medicine but they are continuing to influence the future of pharmacology.

Have you used Chinese herbs for pain? What was your experience?

Image by K. Kendall via Flickr


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