Muscle Aches and Tension:
Materia Medica, Part II
by Kiva Rose
The most effective and nuanced external treatment of muscle aches and tension requires a basic knowledge of energetics and differential diagnostics. Don’t be intimidated though, all you need is a simple understanding of a few basic patterns and you’ll be to apply your herbal knowledge with a great deal more subtlety and precision.
I have omitted potentially toxic or mind altering herbs from this list post, and hope to cover low dose external botanicals at some point in the future.
Please don’t allow the pain relief of herbs to fool you into thinking you’re totally healed right away. Proceed with caution, listen to your body, and rest as needed.
Warming herbs for muscle aches and tension tend to be stimulating, diffusive, and often counter-irritant, and thus initiate healing partially be bringing blood to the affected area in order to initiate healing by the immune system.
These herbs are generally most appropriate on injuries or issues that are cold in nature. Meaning dull, stiff, achy, and better with heat and movement. They are often, but not always, chronic or old issues.
Overview: One of the most well known herbs in mainstream commerce, making it also one of the mosts widely misused herbs known. It is indeed a wonderful plant for healing any injury that needs increased blood flow to the affected area when used appropriately. I learned from my teacher, Michael Moore that Arnica is specific to pain on movement, and to use Arnica immediately after an injury happens, and if that’s not possible, use something more cooling initially and go back to Arnica once heat is desirable and active inflammation with heat excess has diminished. If heat does NOT feel good, don’t use Arnica.
Hint: I tend to prefer Arnica in cold, chronic situations rather than acute, or in formula with cooler herbs to help moderate it’s heating tendencies.
Preparation: Flowers or all aerial parts can be extracted in alcohol, oil, or water to varying degrees. Works great as salve, massage oil, or liniment.
Note: This is a very warming herb and I have seen it aggravate acute inflammation with heat excess.
Goldenrod – Solidago spp.
Overview: Goldenrod is a warming and stimulating herb with many uses, but externally it is phenomenal at healing damaged muscles, even old or chronic injuries. I have repeatedly seen it alleviate the pain and stiffness of old muscular injuries in dancers and other athletes. It can be helpful in some joint pain as well, but my experience indicates it is most helpful at healing the actual muscles.
Hint: Try Goldenrod even on severe muscular issues like separated muscles for pain relief and possible long term healing.
Preparation: The fresh flowering tops extract well into water, alcohol, and oil based preparations. Use as needed.
Note: I find that the most aromatic species tend to be the most helpful in this context, but otherwise, any species of Solidago may be used.
Cottonwood – resinous Populus spp.
Overview: A gentle but effective herb that is warming and stimulating, but mild enough to be used directly after an injury, especially in an individual with a constitution that tends toward coldness or has impaired circulation. Cottonwood infused oil is one of my most used external remedies, especially after straining a muscle, for an overall achy body, or working old tension out of cold, tired muscles. It is warming and stimulating enough to apply to cold extremities in the winter to help avoid aching in the small joints and cracking of skin.
Hint: It’s difficult to go wrong with Cottonwood bud preparations, and it’s also very valuable as an anti-microbial in general salves.
Preparation: Resinous buds in oil or high proof alcohol. Resin is not water soluble, meaning that water based preparations or low proof alcohol will not efficiently extract the resin that is desirable for therapeutic use. In fact, I prefer to always use 95% alcohol when tincturing resinous plants as it’s the most efficient method way to extract the medicine. Very useful as liniment, massage oil, or salve.
Note: Please don’t strip all the buds off of a branch, as the tree needs its leaves. Take small amounts from numerous trees. Also, be sure to harvest before the buds split open and reveal green leaves inside… by that time you run the risk of your buds spoiling from excess moisture and bacteria, especially in oil based preparations.
Conifers – Pinus spp., Abies spp., Tsuga spp., and allied non-toxic genera.
Overview: Conifer leaves, resin, and bark are warming and drying with a notable counterirritant effect. They bring blood to the surface of the skin, increasing circulation and immune response in cold/chronic injuries so that the body can better heal itself, while also warming the area and causing cold, achy muscles to release tension.
Hint: Add small portions of Conifer leaves to massage oil formulas for the amazing aroma and muscle warming effect.
Preparation: Conifers are resinous and generally most efficiently extracted in alcohol or oil, but can also impart mild warming properties via hot water, as in a hot bath. Pleasantly aromatic, they bring a little extra warming zing to many pain relieving formulas, whether salve, massage oil, liniment, or soaks. The leaves are the mildest part of the plant with the resin being the most heating and intense.
Note: Conifer resin is not water soluble and would make an extremely messy bath, and it’s also much more warming than the other parts of the trees, so I recommend sticking primarily to leaves for water based preparations, and using much smaller amounts of the resin in formulas.
Cooling herbs for muscle aches and tension tend to be relaxing, permanent (non-diffusive), and anti-inflammatory, and thus relieve pain and tension through directly relaxing and cooling the area. These herbs are generally most appropriate on injuries or issues that are hot in nature. Meaning sharp, stabbing, tense, sometimes red, and better with rest and worse from heat.
Please note that I do not advise using ice on musco-skeletal injuries, cool water can be appropriate but in general the overt cooling of an injury will just slow the healing process and possibly lead to an acute issue becoming a chronic one.
Lobelia – Lobelia inflata
Overview: An acrid antispasmodic, Lobelia is excellent for acute injuries accompanied by muscle spasms and notable tension. It can be helpful applied to areas where joint/skeletal issues are causing muscular spasms, and also to recent injuries with signs of heat and tension. Additionally, Lobelia can be useful in cases where overt emotional tension is manifesting as cramping or spasming in any part of the body.
Hint: Lobelia is specific to significant tension with muscles spasms, especially those that move around or vary widely in intensity.
Preparation: Liniment (alcoholic or acetic tincture) or infused oil of seeding plant.
Note: Excessive external application of Lobelia liniment can cause some sensitive individuals to feel nauseous. Apply with moderation and build from there based on tolerance.
Comfrey – Symphytum spp.
Overview: Comfrey is a rather infamous herb that I also consider invaluable for external application in tissue healing where there is acute trauma, including post surgery recuperation.
Hint: Comfrey excels at cooling inflammation and knitting damaged tissues back together. It is most specific to acute injuries or post surgery conditions where heat and dryness are preventing full healing.
Preparation: Comfrey is soluble in water, oil, and alcohol, and can be prepared in many ways, including liniment, massage oil, salve, poultice, foment, soaks, and more.
Note: Comfrey can initiate very quick healing so make sure that there is no infection, dislocations, unset fractures etc., so that Comfrey doesn’t knit together something not yet ready for healing.
Alder – Alnus spp.
Overview: Alder is a cooling anti-inflammatory with some pain relieving properties, and a general affinity for tissue healing. It is widely applicable in musco-skeletal injuries and inflammation, and can be used wherever there are signs of heat excess with pain, tenderness, and tissue trauma.
Hint: Alder is blood (part of the mechanism for pain relief) and lymph moving while still being cooling, therefore being an excellent herb for almost any hot/acute muscular injury.
Preparation: Leaves and bark an be extracted in alcohol, oil, or water. A great addition to almost any liniment, salve, or massage oil. Also makes a wonderful soak for sore muscles.
Note: Alder is gentle and generally without negative side effects, but it’s still cooling, so please combine with more warming herbs for chronic injuries or cold signs.
Credit, References, and Resources
7Song – personal correspondence
Jim McDonald – personal correspondence and http://herbcraft.org/backpain.html
Michael Moore – Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
Matthew Wood – Book of Herbal Wisdom
Darcy Williamson – Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains