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Herbs, heat, oil ‘wells’: how Ayurveda strikes at pain

Herbs, heat, oil ‘wells’: how Ayurveda strikes at pain

Can pain be managed through Ayurveda? Read on for the answer.
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Pain is one of the most complex, yet common symptoms the body experiences either because of an injury or inflammation – which is the body’s way of fighting a foreign threat.

Bodily pain is a sign that something is not all right locally or somewhere in the body. Pain could be a sudden onset or acute; long lasting or chronic; topical i.e., limited to a local area, for example, the joints, abdomen, low back, neck; or it could be a generalised body ache.

Different systems deal with it in different ways. Ayurveda looks at pain or shoola by aiming to strike  at the root cause, either with medicines or therapies that help to eliminate pain and depending on its intensity.

This system identifies a disturbed vayu or vata – the air element – as the culprit that causes pain in the body. Practitioners also focus on controlling vata while treating painful maladies such as chronic joint inflammatory conditions namely arthritis, gout, and rheumatism.

Therapists adopt any one of three strategies to handle pain depending on the person’s inherent nature (dosha) and the intensity of the suffering. It could be simple oral dosages; a single external topical procedure on the area; or a combination of two or more such lines of treatment.

Apart from oral medication, pain is often managed with therapies such as these:

  • Cauterisation: Intense heat or burn is delivered to the affected part with a metal instrument. This method improves blood circulation in those muscles and tissues and in turn gives immediate relief from both acute and chronic pain.
  • Bloodletting or leech therapy: Bloodletting involves slightly puncturing the affected part and letting a small, specific amount of venous blood out. Sometimes therapists use leeches for this. The procedure is found to have an analgesic effect on the pain caused by osteoarthritis. A small-scale study conducted by German researchers from the Academic Teaching Hospital of the University of Duisburg-Essen evaluated the efficacy of using leeches for relieving pain in people with osteoarthritis. However, there are few studies that have reported the complications involving leech therapy.
  • Oil application (Oleation): Warm medicated oils are applied to the affected part. The oils contain herbal ingredients which have an analgesic or pain-alleviating effect. The oil softens the muscles and body parts, relieving the spasm and the pain.

           Some oils used to relieve pain are Mahanarayana tailam (a combination of Indian bael root Aegle marmelos, ashwagandha or Withania somnifera, musk, camphor, and 40 more herbal ingredients); and Karpuradi tailam (where camphor is the main ingredient).

  •  Steam therapy:  It is usually given after oil massages to relieve muscle spasms.In sa-agni sweda that uses a heat source, the person is seated in a closed wooden chamber and given a traditional steam bath. Oil is applied medicated decoction or oil that has been heated to a tolerable temperature. Niragni sweda involves exposure to sun and exercising outdoors.
  • Topical therapies: If there is pain in a specific part of the body, local therapies are chosen to relieve pain in that area. Examples are Jaanu basti for the knee joint, Greeva basti for the neck and Kati basti for the lower back.

To make a basti, a leakproof ring or shallow `well’ of dough, usually made of black gram powder, is prepared and placed on the affected part. Hot medicated oil is poured into this ring and is allowed to stay for a specific duration. The process is repeated after 15-20 minutes.

Here are a few simple remedies for common pains and aches:

  • Abdominal pain is managed with spasm-relieving herbs such as asafoetida (hing), dry ginger, cumin seeds, and long pepper.
  • For headaches, different medicinal pastes or ointments are applied externally. Oil-dripping therapy is used to manage persisting headaches.
  • Pain due to dental caries and mouth ulcers is often prescribed oil pulling or the simpler oil swishing/rinsing method.

Role of herbs

Herbs are typically chosen from a group of plants with analgesic effect. In addition, herbs such as myrrh (Commiphora mukul), chaste tree (Vitex negundo), celery seeds (Apium graveolens), Alpinia (Alpinia galanga), and castor (Ricinus communis) are used.

Medications are formulated using a combination of herbal ingredients in a base of a suitable oil or ghee and prescribed for external or internal use. Tablets and decoctions are taken orally.

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