Clinician Article

Herbal medicinal products or preparations for neuropathic pain.

  • Boyd A
  • Bleakley C
  • Hurley DA
  • Gill C
  • Hannon-Fletcher M
  • Bell P, et al.
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Apr 2;4:CD010528. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010528.pub4. (Review)
PMID: 30938843
Read abstract Read evidence summary Read full text
  • Special Interest - Pain -- Physician
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Neurology
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 3/7
  • Endocrine
    Relevance - 4/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 4/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 4/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: Neuropathic pain is a consequence of damage to the central nervous system (CNS), for example, cerebrovascular accident, multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury, or peripheral nervous system (PNS), for example, painful diabetic neuropathy (PDN), postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), or surgery. Evidence suggests that people suffering from neuropathic pain are likely to seek alternative modes of pain relief such as herbal medicinal products due to adverse events brought about by current pharmacological agents used to treat neuropathic pain. This review includes studies in which participants were treated with herbal medicinal products (topically or ingested) who had experienced neuropathic pain for at least three months.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the analgesic efficacy and effectiveness of herbal medicinal products or preparations for neuropathic pain, and the adverse events associated with their use.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched CENTRAL and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL and AMED to March 2018. We identified additional studies from the reference lists of the retrieved papers. We also searched trials registries for ongoing trials and we contacted experts in the field for relevant data in terms of published, unpublished or ongoing studies.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (including cross-over designs) of double-blind design, assessing efficacy of herbal treatments for neuropathic pain compared to placebo, no intervention or any other active comparator. Participants were 18 years and above and had been suffering from one or more neuropathic pain conditions, for three months or more.We applied no restrictions to language or gender. We excluded studies monitoring effects of isolated, single chemicals derived from the plant or synthetic chemicals based on constituents of the plant, if they were not administered at a concentration naturally present within the plant.We excluded studies monitoring the effects of traditional Asian medicine and Cannabinoids as well as studies looking at headache or migraine as these treatments and conditions are addressed in distinct reviews.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane. Two review authors independently considered trials for inclusion, assessed risk of bias, and extracted data. We calculated the risk ratio (RR) and number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB). The primary outcomes were participant-reported pain relief of 30%, or 50%, or greater, and participant-reported global impression of clinical change (PGIC). We also collected information on adverse events. We assessed evidence using GRADE and created a 'Summary of findings' table.

MAIN RESULTS: We included two studies (128 participants). Both diabetic neuropathy and non-diabetic neuropathic pain conditions were investigated across these two studies.Two herbal medicinal products, namely nutmeg (applied topically as a 125 mL spray for four weeks, containing mace oil 2%, nutmeg oil 14%, methyl salicylate 6%, menthol 6%, coconut oil and alcohol) and St John's wort (taken in capsule form containing 900 µg total hypericin each, taken three times daily, giving a total concentration of 2700 mg for five weeks). Both studies allowed the use of concurrent analgesia.Both reported at least one pain-related outcome but we could not carry out meta-analysis of effectiveness due to heterogeneity between the primary outcomes and could not draw any conclusions of effect. Other outcomes included PGIC, adverse events and withdrawals. There were no data for participant-reported pain relief of 50% or greater or PGIC (moderate and substantial) outcomes.When looking at participant-reported pain relief of 30% or greater over baseline, we observed no evidence of a difference (P = 0.64) in response to nutmeg versus placebo (RR 1.12, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.69 to 1.85; 48.6% vs 43.2%). We downgraded the evidence for this outcome to very low quality.We observed no change between placebo and nutmeg treatment when looking at secondary pain outcomes. Visual analogue scale (VAS) scores for pain reduction (0 to 100, where 0 = no pain reduction), were 44 for both nutmeg and placebo with standard deviations of 21.5 and 26.5 respectively. There was no evidence of a difference (P = 0.09 to 0.33) in total pain score in response to St John's wort compared to placebo, as there was only a reduction of 1 point when looking at median differences in change from baseline on a 0 to 10-point numeric rating scale.There was a total of five withdrawals out of 91 participants (5%) in the treatment groups compared to six of 91 (6.5%) in the placebo groups, whilst adverse events were the same for both the treatment and placebo groups.We judged neither study as having a low risk of bias. We attributed risk of bias to small study size and incomplete outcome data leading to attrition bias. We downgraded the evidence to very low quality for all primary and secondary outcomes reported in this review. We downgraded the quality of the evidence twice due to very serious limitations in study quality (due to small study size and attrition bias) and downgraded a further level due to indirectness as the included studies only measured outcomes at short-term time points. The results from this review should be treated with scepticism as we have very little confidence in the effect estimate.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: There was insufficient evidence to determine whether nutmeg or St John's wort has any meaningful efficacy in neuropathic pain conditions.The quality of the current evidence raises serious uncertainties about the estimates of effect observed, therefore, we have very little confidence in the effect estimate; the true effect is likely to be substantially different from the estimate of effect.

Clinical Comments

Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)

This Cochrane review summarises all available evidence on herbal medicine products for neuropathic pain, and finds insufficient evidence to recommend such products.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

This paper is attempting to apply scientific rigor to herbology. The literature on the benefits of herbal remedies for neuropathic pain does not lend itself to rigorous analysis.

Special Interest - Pain -- Physician

This allows me to answer questions from patients about over the counter therapy. It's good review evidence so it will be good advice. There is no harm to try these things but it may not help pure true neuropathic pain.

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