04 January 2014

Traditional Chinese medicine proves effective for chronic pain

Image Credit: oksana2010 / Shutterstock
For centuries, Chinese medicine has used the roots of the flowering plant Corydalis, which is a member of the poppy family, as a pain reliever. It appears that the roots of this flowering plant contain the compound dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB), which is key pain-relieving compound.

Olivier Civelli of the University of California, Irvine said, “Our study reports the discovery of a new natural product that can relieve pain. This analgesic acts in animal assays against the three types of pain that afflict humans, including acute, inflammatory, and neuropathic or chronic pain.”

This discovery was made from the herbalome project, an attempt to catalog all of the chemical components in traditional Chinese medicine. “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. We’re excited that this one shows promise as an effective pharmaceutical. It also shows a different way to understand the pain mechanism,” said Civelli.

The new study focused on the corydalis plants which grow mainly in central eastern China. Their underground tubers are harvested, ground and boiled in hot vinegar. Often the concoctions are prescribed to treat pain that includes headaches and back pain.

Researchers began by searching for compounds in corydalis that seemed likely to function in a manner similar to morphine. Civelli explained, “We landed on DHCB but rapidly found that it acts not through the morphine receptor but through other receptors, in particular one that binds dopamine.” Earlier studies have indicated that the dopamine D2 receptor could be a significant player in pain sensation. This new research adds evidence to this theory.

Although corydalis extracts and isolated DHCB are effective for all types of pain, this compound brings a special hope for people who suffer with persistent, low-level chronic pain. One significant aspect is that DHCB does not appear to lose effectiveness when used over long periods of time like traditional opiate drugs.

“We have good pain medications for acute pain: codeine or morphine, for example,” Civelli says. “We have pain medication for inflammatory pain, such as aspirin or acetaminophen. We do not have good medications for chronic pain. DHCB may not be able to relieve strong chronic pain, but may be used for low-level chronic pain.”

Although various prepared types of corydalis are available to be purchased online, Civelli and Liang say DHCB is not ready for the market yet. Before doctors should consider prescribing it to patients, additional testing for toxicity is necessary. These findings were reported on January 2, 2014 in the journal Current Biology.

Now read: Some truth proved ‘Apple a day keeps the doctor way’


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