Ancient Chinese herbal remedy might be cure for chronic pain


What Western medicine have struggled to do for the longest time, the Chinese have been getting it right for thousands of years.

Corydalis yanhusuo, a flowering herbal plant that grows in Siberia, Northern China and Japan, has been used for centuries by people in the region to relieve pain. The plant is a member of the poppy family, and has been used as a pain reliever in Chinese medicine for most of Chinese history. The roots of the plant are dug up, ground, and then boiled in hot vinegar. This results in a medicine that is a non-addictive analgesic, and which helps relieve acute, inflammatory, and neuropathic or chronic pain.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, is part of the "herbalome" project, a collaboration between Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in China, headed by Xinmiao Liang, and a team of researchers from University of California, Irvine. Liang's group has been working on cataloging all the chemical components in plants that have healing properties. They screened 10 traditional Chinese medicines that have been known to relieve pain, and tested almost 500 different compounds for their ability to relieve pain.

The researchers found that the Corydalis plant contains dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB) in their roots, which acts like morphine, but functions in the human body not through the morphine receptor. Instead, it acts on the other receptors that binds dopamine.

These findings are specially significant for patients who suffer from persistent and low-level chronic pain. The DHCB compound was seen to be especially effective in diminishing inflammatory pain caused by tissue damage as well as injury-induced neuropathic pain, which currently has no adequate treatments.

Oliver Civelli, the Eric L. & Lila D. Nelson Chair in Neuropharmacology in UC Irvine, said, "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."

Over 50 million Americans suffer from chronic neuropathic pain, yet pain management continues to be a major challenge. Civelli said that opening doors to traditional Chinese medicinal herbal products can break new grounds in treatment of pain and although DHCB must still be evaluated for toxicity before it can be developed as a drug, there is a positive outlook on the compound.

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