The Science of Herbal and Supplemental Medicine

By Ted Swing, Ph.D.

Herbal medicines have thousands of years of history in cultures around the world. Other types of supplemental medicines make use of naturally occurring chemicals and extracts. Today, these treatments re main widely used for a variety of conditions, including conditions causing chronic pain. These treatments are regarded by the US Food and Drug Administration as dietary supplements, rather than medical treatments, which can lead people to assume that these treatments have not been studied scientifically. In fact, many types of supplements have been studied as treatments for various medical conditions. Some of these ingredients have demonstrated considerable efficacy, even in the same sort of double-­‐blinded, randomized, placebo-­‐controlled trials that prescription medications are subjected to.


Fibromyalgia is a condition of the central nervous system characterized by widespread pain and other symptoms such as fatigue and sleep disturbance. Fibromyalgia is frequently treated with antidepressant medications, as these have been found to reduce the severity of the pain. St. John’s Wort, a herbal supplement, has been found to act on similar receptors to antidepressant medications and have similar efficacy in treating depression, leading some doctors to believe this could be useful in treating pain conditions such as fibromyalgia as well.

As one of the symptoms of fibromyalgia is sleep disturbance, melatonin, a sleep-­‐regulating hormone found in humans and other animals, has been considered as a possible treatment the condition. A double-­‐blind placebo controlled trial of patients taking antidepressant medication for fibromyalgia assigned some patients to also take melatonin. Patients taking melatonin experienced a greater reduction in their fibromyalgia symptoms than those patients taking antidepressant medication alone.

One of chemicals that the body uses in the process of generating energy through metabolism, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), tends to be lower in patients with fibromyalgia. An open label study found that supplementing patients with CoQ10 and Ginkgo biloba reduced their fibromyalgia symptoms. Another natural body compound, s-­‐adenosylmethionine (SAM-­‐e), was also found to have beneficial effects on fibromyalgia in a Danish randomized placebo-­‐controlled trial.


Osteoarthritis is a common degenerative condition of the joints that can cause chronic pain and impaired function. Several supplements have been studied for the treatment of osteoarthritis. A combination of glucosamine, found in bone marrow, and chondroitin, a component of cartilage, has been tested as a treatment for osteoarthritis in 15 studies. Overall, the results of these studies revealed a moderate to large effect i n relieving osteoarthritis symptoms. A double-­‐blind study compared the compound SAM-­‐e to an NSAID medication. This study found that, though it took longer for SAM-­‐e to take effect, it proved as effective as the NSAID medication.

At least two herbal supplements have also been studied for relief of osteoarthritis. The extract of a plant called boswellia serrata was also found to provide similar relief to an NSAID medication in a randomized, open label trial for the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee. Pine bark extract was also found to be more effective than placebo in relieving pain in another randomized, double-­‐blind study.


Migraines are moderate to severe recurrent headaches often accompanied by other autonomic nervous system symptoms. A randomized, double-­‐blind, placebo controlled trial found that six months of supplementation with folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 decreased both the frequency and severity of migraines. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a chemical naturally found in human cells, was found to reduce the frequency of headaches and nausea in another randomized, double-­‐blinded placebo controlled trial. The extract of petasites, commonly known as butterbur, was found to be more effective than placebo in preventing migraine in a randomized clinical trial.

Holistic Medicine

Holistic medicine is an approach to medicine that involves the use of conventional medications and procedures as well as alternative treatments. For example, alternative treatments might include herbal and supplemental treatments. The efficacy of some of these treatments has not been demonstrated, but as the studies mentioned here show, others have scientifically demonstrated value in treating certain medical conditions. If you are interested in learning more about supplements for pain conditions, you can speak with your health care provider or visit Holistic Pain (Holisticpain.com/) to learn more about this research.

Ted Swing has more than nine years of research experience and four years of teaching experience in psychology, has published in top psychology and medical journals, and has presented his research at major conferences. He received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Iowa State University and has been the Research Director at Arizona Pain since May 2012.