Chronic pain and “natural” treatments (a rant)

This is kind of a ranty post, just to warn you in advance.  Some of you are aware that my day job is in the herbal industry.  Now, I am an herbalist and a witch, and I also work with some plant spirits; obviously I have the utmost respect for plant medicines and other natural remedies and I use them as much as possible.  However, this industry seems to attract a certain flaky class of customers, very similar to the airy-fairy “the gods are all love and light and They love us all equally and would never, ever hurt us” class of pagans I’m sure we’re all familiar with.  These customers always want to impress me with how much they believe in herbal cures for every ailment, and they also wholeheartedly believe that since herbs are “natural,” they can’t possibly be harmful.

I’ll wait a moment while you finish scoffing at that last statement.

At any rate, these customers are at their most obnoxious when they ask me about herbs for chronic pain issues.  Once in a while they’ll be asking for themselves (which is less annoying because they at least know how much pain they’re in), but most often it’s for a friend or family member who is on narcotics or another prescription medicine, and the person asking thinks they should be turning to something “more natural.”  While I am certainly able to recommend herbs that will help to some extent with chronic pain and inflammation (St. John’s wort, kava kava root, cayenne, and so forth, as well as topical products), in no way are these going to be as strong as a narcotic, nor are they going to be sufficient for someone in so much pain that they need to be taking narcotics.  When I occasionally make the mistake of telling these people that I’m a chronic pain patient myself (fibromyalgia and arthritis), it gets even worse; one woman insisted that I should consider switching to essential oils, since they were “all natural” and “just as good.”

There are two major problems with this argument, the first being the obvious: you have no right—none, whatsoever—to tell another person how much pain they’re in, or try to dictate to them what they should be using to control that pain, especially if you’re not their doctor, or even a doctor at all.  And secondly, the “unnatural drugs” these people condemn so blithely ARE MOSTLY BASED ON HERBS, very powerful and, yes, potentially dangerous herbs (which is why many of them are regulated by law), but all the same, HERBS. Morphine, for example? Comes from the opium poppy, which is a PLANT, people—and one that can be very dangerous and addictive, thus defeating the “everything natural is good” argument.  And the pharmaceuticals that aren’t directly derived from herbs often mimic their chemical structures.

The flip side of this argument is the complaint –which I heard from one woman just the other day–that “doctors always want to prescribe drugs” for chronic pain conditions, and are never willing to use herbal remedies.  I wondered how she would know, since she wasn’t a pain patient herself (she was one of those asking on behalf of a friend) and although I’ve been lucky and have gotten the medications I need for my own pain, many pain patients I’ve spoken to have been less fortunate and have had to deal with doctors who won’t give them anything stronger than antidepressants.  The woman was wrong, too, that doctors are never willing to consider herbs; my own doctor (who is fabulous) is not only receptive to hearing about alternative therapies but also sometimes recommends them to me herself (such as fish oil, for inflammation). 

So, for once and for all, and on behalf of chronic pain sufferers like myself:

1)      Chronic pain is REAL.  It is not depression, and is not “all in our heads.”  Mood-boosting herbs and antidepressants can help give us the energy to get through the day, but they don’t make us forget about the pain.

2)      If it isn’t YOUR pain, you aren’t a doctor, and you haven’t been asked your opinion, shut up and mind your own business; you have no right to pretend to judge how much pain another person is in, or what would be the best way to treat it.

3)      Herbs, essential oils, and other natural remedies CAN help, but generally as supplements, not the main form of treatment for someone who really needs narcotics.

4)      “Natural” does NOT mean safe.  Many, many drugs are derived from herbs (really powerful herbs), and are thus to all intents and purposes “natural.”

And now back to work.  Just had to get that off my chest before I end up snapping at someone. (*smile*)


13 thoughts on “Chronic pain and “natural” treatments (a rant)”

  1. *facepalm*

    Wow. I can’t believe you’ve actually got customers lecturing you about your own pain-management.

    Okay, of course I can because people are annoying, especially in retail … but still. Way inappropriate. In fact all of your four points are well worth keeping in mind.

    1. It got to be so annoying that I don’t even bring my own experience into it anymore, because they don’t really want to hear about that. I just smile and tell them what they want to hear.

  2. Ahhhh. That felt so good to read. On behalf of myself — the only one for whom I can speak– and my inflammatory osteoarthritis, many many many thanks.

    1. You’re welcome! I know these kinds of people mean well and don’t realize how irritating and sometimes even insulting they can be, but it needed to be said.

  3. I swear, were I you, every time someone tried to tell me all herbs were natural and safe, I’d just say belladonna in response. And what a joy to have so many educated health professionals calling you for business. 😉

    1. Hehe, yup, good answer, except that I suspect half the people around here would think you meant the homeopathic belladonna remedy, and the other half wouldn’t know what you were talking about. *rolls eyes*

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I truly and absolutely hate it when people get this way around me. I want to smack things (and people) with a 20 pound sledge, if only I could pick it up and swing it properly.

    1. Clearly, you need me around more often–I could do it and sing Mighty Thor Ditties while doing so! I would be Fierce in Defense of My Woobie! RAR!

      Curare is made with all-natural ingredients. 😎

  5. I’ve had parallel moments dealing with my ADHD. No reasoning at all with some people on this issue.

  6. Like you, I’m a supporter of herbal/natural remedies and I have the good fortune of being in touch with a remarkable alternative practitioner who can give me skilled advice. However, some of my health concerns can’t be treated with herbs, no matter the strength or combination. I’ve done my fair share of looking for herbal solutions to these problems and there simply aren’t any that directly address the problem (and mildly treating some of the symptoms is not an effective use of my time or money). Like it or not, there are some health concerns that can only be effectively treated with pharmaceuticals. Denegrating the decision to turn to pharmaceuticals in favor of nostalgia for an imagined past where everyone was happy and fluffy and munched on herbs all day isn’t helpful. Penicilin helps. Antipsychotics help. Radiation treatment for cancer helps. Infection, psychosis, and cancer all existed in the past but before pharmaceuticals there was simply no hope for people.

    All this reminds me of a recent XKCD strip: There comes a point when I have to put down the crystals and whale song CDs and grab hold of something more substantial.

      1. I don’t know about “better”; you work around them every day. 🙂

        Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), personal involvement is an essential part of health, regardless of which avenue one chooses to take. Pharmaceuticals as well as herbal remedies require behaviors that support their healing benefits.

        Anyway, I’ve got a letter I need to send you. 🙂

        1. Personal involvement and responsibility are the key to *everything*; that’s the part most people miss. No one is going to spoonfeed you health–not doctors, and definitely not herb companies. (Can you tell this is another attitude I encounter a lot from customers? ;))

          I still need to answer your email, too. The years go on but one thing stays the same: I remain really sucky at correspondence.

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