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*)