Materia Medica

Muscle aches + tension


Materia Medica, Part 1: Internal Use

The cold moons are a time when many longstanding aches and pains worsen, and also when recent injuries often become more problematic. The low temperatures seem to make the pain  and stiffness seep into the very bones and can make free movement difficult indeed.

This is a quick and dirty overview/breakdown of herbs that can be used internally to loosen up skeletal muscles, thereby making movement easier and also potentially bringing longer standing healing to the area.  All of these suggestions are intended to bring about fairly quick, if not entirely instant, gratification. Dealing with longstanding or chronic muscular pain often requires a different approach, and will usually incorporate lifestyle and nutritional changes. While I touch on this here, this post is meant to address the symptoms in a general way

There are many more herbs that can be useful within these parameters, but I have chosen the ones I am most familiar with and that grow in my bioregion.

For a greater understanding of the anatomy being referenced here, please see:




Nutrition is often a primary element in healing muscular issues, particularly if they’re of a chronic or recurring nature. Vitamin D3, magnesium, and omega 3s are just three very important nutrients for musco-skeletal well being that many of us are deficient in. Jim McDonald’s article on Herbs for Back Pain is a great one, not only covers herbs, but also provides a look at relevant nutrients. http://herbcraft.org/backpain.html

Internal Approaches

Pedicularis spp.

Overview: Pedicularis is a general relaxant for the skeletal muscles, making it highly useful in many skeletal muscle oriented formulas, and plays well with many of the other herbs referenced here.  Pedicularis is excellent for overall tension being held in the muscles, and may even result in a “limp noodle” effect if taken in the appropriate situation where there’s a great deal of muscular tension. The benefit of its overall and generally mild effect is that it can help in almost situation where there are tense, painful muscles. Especially if the pain is worse with stress and/or anxiety, as it’s also a relaxant nervine.  Keep in mind that ingesting it in reasonable doses will cause many folk to feel quite relaxed and even potentially sleepy or lethargic, depending on one’s response to nervines.

Hint: When I have an abundant supply of Pedicularis I tend to include it in most of my formulas that I create for folks with aches and pains that either result from or result in tension, including overworked or strained muscles from physical activity.

Dosage: 10 drops – 2 teaspoons of tincture (usually above ground parts in flower) every 3 hours or as needed. I usually begin with a dose of 1 ml and work up or down from there depending on how the person responds. A small percentage of people respond very strongly to Pedicularis and may suddenly become very sedated/sleepy.

Note: Please realize that Pedicularis is not a weedily abundant plant and that care should be taken to either wildcraft it with consideration, or to purchase it from a responsible and ethical source.

Black Cohosh/Baneberry – Actaea racemosa/Actaea rubra

Overview: We don’t necessarily think of it in this way, but Actaea is an excellent muscle relaxant, having an effect on both skeletal and smooth muscles and working to effectively alleviate many kinds of muscular and joint pain. Actaea can even help manage the pain of both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It is not a cure, but it can be helpful with pain management and relaxing the muscles.

Hint: Actaea can work as a great general muscle relaxant, but is sometimes especially effective for the sort of deep, constant aching that can cause the person’s entire emotional outlook to become gloomy and depressed.

Dosage: 3-20 drops of fresh root tincture. The two species listed can be used interchangeably and should be dosed similarly as well.

Consider: Actaea can cause frontal headaches in sensitive individuals or in excessively large doses. If the headache occurs even at a low dose, discontinue its use.

Silk Tassel – Garrya wrightii 

Overview: While most folks generally familiar with Silk Tassel tend to think of it as a smooth muscle relaxant, I learned from my friend and mentor, 7Song, that it can also be quite useful in the treatment of skeletal muscles. I have utilized it numerous time in situations where someone has hot, acute pain after aggravating an old injury in a muscle or the spinal column as a whole.

Hint: Silk Tassel is a cooling herb usually best suited to to hot, acute pain so I don’t suggest it’s continued use in cold, chronic conditions where the pain has turned achy and low grade unless thoughtfully formulated with warmer healing herbs. I personally tend to use it only during the acute phase and then switch from damage control (reducing pain and spasms) to more active healing.

Dosage: 10 drops-1/2 ml tincture (usually leaves or leaves and twigs) every 3 hours or as needed.

Consider: Some herbalists consider Silk Tassel to be an anticholinergic with an affinity for the pelvic area. Be careful exceeding the suggested dose and if dry mouth or dilated eyes accompany usage, reduce or stop ingestion.

Vervain – Verbena spp./Glandularia spp.

Overview: In some ways similar to Pedicularis, Vervain is an excellent herb for relaxing tension, easing pain and anxiety, and cooling heat/inflammation. It is equally versatile, but also has a very specific action on neck tension, especially when rooted in the trapezius and then spreading through the neck and shoulders.

Hint: Where Vervain is very specific, a low dose (just a few drops) can sometimes entirely relax the muscles, significantly reduce pain, and initiate healing in the area. It is especially helpful where the muscular tension is related to a larger pattern of poor digestion and emotional tension.

Dosage: 2 drops – 2 ml of tincture (flowering tops) every three hours or as needed.

Consider: Be aware that Verbena and Glandularia spp. can cause nausea or even vomiting in some sensitive individuals, so start with a low dose.

 Lobelia – Lobelia inflata

Overview: Lobelia is one of the best antispasmodics for acute muscular spasms that I know of, especially for the type of spasms that clench and freeze and just won’t let go. This is one of the few plants that doesn’t grow in my region that I always keep on hand as I find it invaluable for all sorts of spasmodic and wind type afflictions.

Hint: Lobelia is an acrid herb, and tends to work exceptionally well on spasms that come and go, and may even move through the affected area instead of being centered in one particular spot. I have seen three drops entirely stop spasms that were previously rippling across someone’s entire back and had them writhing in pain.

Dosage: 1-25 drops of fresh flowering/seeding tops tincture.

Consider: At high dosages or in very sensitive individuals, Lobelia can cause nausea and vomiting. This is much less likely to happen if you start with the smallest dose and go from there.

Credit, References, and Resources

7Song – personal correspondence and http://7song.com/blog/2012/02/pedicularis-lousewort-monograph-pedicularis-as-a-skeletal-muscle-relaxant/

Howie Brounstein – conversation

Jim McDonald – personal correspondence and http://herbcraft.org/backpain.html

Michael Moore – Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West

Matthew Wood – Book of Herbal Wisdom

Materia Medica, Part II: External Use

The most effective and nuanced external treatment of muscle aches and tension requires a basic knowledge of energetics and differential diagnostics. Don’t be intimidated though, all you need is a simple understanding of a few basic patterns and you’ll be to apply your herbal knowledge with a great deal more subtlety and precision. I have omitted potentially toxic or mind altering herbs from this list post, and hope to cover low dose external botanicals at some point in the future.

Please don’t allow the pain relief of herbs to fool you into thinking you’re totally healed right away. Proceed with caution, listen to your body, and rest as needed.

Warming Herbs

Warming herbs for muscle aches and tension tend to be stimulating, diffusive, and often counter-irritant, and thus initiate healing partially be bringing blood to the affected area in order to initiate healing by the immune system.

These herbs are generally most appropriate on injuries or issues that are cold in nature. Meaning dull, stiff, achy, and better with heat and movement. They are often, but not always, chronic or old issues.

Arnica spp.

Overview: One of the most well known herbs in mainstream commerce, making it also one of the mosts widely misused herbs known. It is indeed a wonderful plant for healing any injury that needs increased blood flow to the affected area when used appropriately.  I learned from my teacher, Michael Moore that Arnica is specific to pain on movement, and to use Arnica immediately after an injury happens, and if that’s not possible, use something more cooling initially and go back to Arnica once heat is desirable and active inflammation with heat excess has diminished. If heat does NOT feel good, don’t use Arnica.

Hint: I tend to prefer Arnica in cold, chronic situations rather than acute, or in formula with cooler herbs to help moderate it’s heating tendencies.

Preparation: Flowers or all aerial parts can be extracted in alcohol, oil, or water to varying degrees. Works great as salve, massage oil, or liniment.

Note: This is a very warming herb and I have seen it aggravate acute inflammation with heat excess.

Goldenrod – Solidago spp. 

Overview: Goldenrod is a warming and stimulating herb with many uses, but externally it is phenomenal at healing damaged muscles, even old or chronic injuries. I have repeatedly seen it alleviate the pain and stiffness of old muscular injuries in dancers and other athletes. It can be helpful in some joint pain as well, but my experience indicates it is most helpful at healing the actual muscles.

Hint: Try Goldenrod even on severe muscular issues like separated muscles for pain relief and possible long term healing.

Preparation: The fresh flowering tops extract well into water, alcohol, and oil based preparations. Use as needed.

Note: I find that the most aromatic species tend to be the most helpful in this context, but otherwise, any species of Solidago may be used.

Cottonwood – resinous Populus spp.

Overview: A gentle but effective herb that is warming and stimulating, but mild enough to be used directly after an injury, especially in an individual with a constitution that tends toward coldness or has impaired circulation. Cottonwood infused oil is one of my most used external remedies, especially after straining a muscle, for an overall achy body, or working old tension out of cold, tired muscles. It is warming and stimulating enough to apply to cold extremities in the winter to help avoid aching in the small joints and cracking of skin.

Hint: It’s difficult to go wrong with Cottonwood bud preparations, and it’s also very valuable as an anti-microbial in general salves.

Preparation: Resinous buds in oil or high proof alcohol. Resin is not water soluble, meaning that water based preparations or low proof alcohol will not efficiently extract the resin that is desirable for therapeutic use. In fact, I prefer to always use 95% alcohol when tincturing resinous plants as it’s the most efficient method way to extract the medicine. Very useful as liniment, massage oil, or salve.

Note: Please don’t strip all the buds off of a branch, as the tree needs its leaves. Take small amounts from numerous trees. Also, be sure to harvest before the buds split open and reveal green leaves inside… by that time you run the risk of your buds spoiling from excess moisture and bacteria, especially in oil based preparations.

Conifers  – Pinus spp.,  Abies spp., Tsuga spp., and allied non-toxic genera. 

Overview: Conifer leaves, resin, and bark are warming and drying with a notable counterirritant effect. They bring blood to the surface of the skin, increasing circulation and immune response in cold/chronic injuries so that the body can better heal itself, while also warming the area and causing cold, achy muscles to release tension.

Hint: Add small portions of Conifer leaves to massage oil formulas for the amazing aroma and muscle warming effect.

Preparation: Conifers are resinous and generally most efficiently extracted in alcohol or oil, but can also impart mild warming properties via hot water, as in a hot bath. Pleasantly aromatic, they bring a little extra warming zing to many pain relieving formulas, whether salve, massage oil, liniment, or soaks. The leaves are the mildest part of the plant with the resin being the most heating and intense.

Note: Conifer resin is not water soluble and would make an extremely messy bath, and it’s also much more warming than the other parts of the trees, so I recommend sticking primarily to leaves for water based preparations, and using much smaller amounts of the resin in formulas.

Cooling Herbs

Cooling herbs for muscle aches and tension tend to be relaxing, permanent (non-diffusive), and anti-inflammatory, and thus relieve pain and tension through directly relaxing and cooling the area.  These herbs are generally most appropriate on injuries or issues that are hot in nature. Meaning sharp, stabbing, tense, sometimes red, and better with rest and worse from heat.

Please note that I do not advise using ice on musco-skeletal injuries, cool water can be appropriate but in general the overt cooling of an injury will just slow the healing process and possibly lead to an acute issue becoming a chronic one.

Lobelia – Lobelia inflata

Overview: An acrid antispasmodic, Lobelia is excellent for acute injuries accompanied by muscle spasms and notable tension. It can be helpful applied to areas where joint/skeletal issues are causing muscular spasms, and also to recent injuries with signs of heat and tension. Additionally, Lobelia can be useful in cases where overt emotional tension is manifesting as cramping or spasming in any part of the body.

Hint: Lobelia is specific to significant tension with muscles spasms, especially those that move around or vary widely in intensity.

Preparation: Liniment (alcoholic or acetic tincture) or infused oil of seeding plant.

Note: Excessive external application of Lobelia liniment can cause some sensitive individuals to feel nauseous. Apply with moderation and build from there based on tolerance.

Comfrey – Symphytum spp. 

Overview: Comfrey is a rather infamous herb that I also consider invaluable for external application in tissue healing where there is acute trauma, including post surgery recuperation.

Hint: Comfrey excels at cooling inflammation and knitting damaged tissues back together. It is most specific to acute injuries or post surgery conditions where heat and dryness are preventing full healing.

Preparation: Comfrey is soluble in water, oil, and alcohol, and can be prepared in many ways, including liniment, massage oil, salve, poultice, foment, soaks, and more.

Note: Comfrey can initiate very quick healing so make sure that there is no infection, dislocations, unset fractures etc., so that Comfrey doesn’t knit together something not yet ready for healing.

Alder – Alnus spp.

Overview: Alder is a cooling anti-inflammatory with some pain relieving properties, and a general affinity for tissue healing. It is widely applicable in musco-skeletal injuries and inflammation, and can be used wherever there are signs of heat excess with pain, tenderness, and tissue trauma.

Hint: Alder is blood (part of the mechanism for pain relief) and lymph moving while still being cooling, therefore being an excellent herb for almost any hot/acute muscular injury.

Preparation: Leaves and bark an be extracted in alcohol, oil, or water. A great addition to almost any liniment, salve, or massage oil. Also makes a wonderful soak for sore muscles.

Note: Alder is gentle and generally without negative side effects, but it’s still cooling, so please combine with more warming herbs for chronic injuries or cold signs. 

Credit, References, and Resources

7Song – personal correspondence

Jim McDonald – personal correspondence and http://herbcraft.org/backpain.html

Michael Moore – Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West

Matthew Wood – Book of Herbal Wisdom

Darcy Williamson – Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains