Freedictionary.com defines pain as “an unpleasant sensation occurring in varying degrees of severity as a consequence of injury, disease, or emotional disorder.” Pain is a basic human sensation, but probably the most unwanted among all human sensations. For thousand years, humans have been discovering medications to alleviate the pain caused by various injuries, diseases, and disorders. Interestingly most of the medications used for reducing and eradicating pain are plants. The roots, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, and barks of medicinal plants are used to treat menstrual cramp, muscle pain, back pain, joint pain, stomachache, toothache, headache, etc. One of the medicinal plants used for thousand years is the white willow (Salix alba), a willow species native to Europe and Western and Central Asia.
White willow is a deciduous tree (shed leaves at particular season) growing up to 10-30 m tall, with a trunk reaching up to one meter in diameter. The name “white willow” comes from the color of the leaves, which are covered with very fine silky white hairs, particularly on the underside. The bark of an older white willow is gray-brown and deeply fissured. It is the bark that people gather to prepare medication for pain. In 400 BC, Hippocrates advised patients to chew willow bark to reduce fever and inflammation. Historical records show that ancient Egyptians also used white willow bark to cure inflammation. Throughout the ages, white willow bark has been widely used herbal remedy for pain and inflammation. The herb paved the way for the discovery of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), a popular pain reliever.
The active compound found in white willow bark is salicin, which was first isolated by European scientists in 1829. Public demand for salicin grew rapidly soon after its successful isolation. Salicin extraction from willow bark was considered expensive and time-consuming, so German scientists developed synthetic salicylic acid which rapidly became the treatment of choice for pain. Salicin is converted to salicylic acid in the body.
Salicylic acid is effective pain-reliever but it has side effects: stomach ulcer and bleeding. In 1897, Bayer Germany developed acetylsalicylic acid (marketed as aspirin), a less harsh derivative of salicylic acid. However, aspirin was still found to cause gastrointestinal side effects.
Despite the availability of aspirin and other pain-relievers in the market, some people are still using willow bark as an alternative treatment for pain and inflammation. It is because white willow causes lesser side effects than synthetic pain relievers. Salicin in white willow is only converted to salicylic acid after being absorbed by the body. Unlike salicylic acid, salicin does not irritate stomach linings and cause bleeding. Moreover, white willow bark contains other components (e.g. flavonoids, tannins, and minerals) that exhibit antiseptic, immune-boosting, fever-reducing, and antioxidant properties.
Now, let us look at the various medicinal uses of white willow bark.
White Willow Bark: Medicinal Uses
Treatment for Lower Back Pain
Sigrun Chrubasik et al. (2000) concluded in their study that “willow bark extract may be useful and safe treatment for low back pain.” The researchers enrolled 210 patients with lower back pain in a randomized 4-week double-blind study. They divided the patients into three groups: one group receiving high-dose of oral willow bark extract; one group receiving low-dose extract; and another group receiving placebo. The researchers observed significantly higher number of pain-free patients in the groups receiving oral willow bark compared to the group receiving placebo. Moreover, the number of pain-free patients are greater in the group receiving high-dose of willow extract compared to the group receiving low-dose extract.
Treatment for Arthritis
White willow bark extract can improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis, according to the findings of several studies. Willow extract is more effective in alleviating pain than placebo. B. Schmid et al. (2001) found out in their study that osteoarthritis patients who received willow bark extract had significant pain relief compared to those who received placebo. However, the number of patients who participated in the study was small, about 78 patients only. More studies with higher number of participants are needed to find out if willow bark extract is indeed effective in improving osteoarthritis symptoms.
Treatment for Headache
Several studies suggest the effectiveness of willow bark extract in treating headache. In addition, willow bark extract is less likely to cause gastrointestinal side effects (stomach ulcer and bleeding) compared to aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs sold over the counter.
Other Medicinal Uses
White willow bark extract is traditionally used as alternative treatment for bursitis, tendonitis, flu, fever, and menstrual cramps. Scientific studies are needed to evaluate the effectiveness of willow extract in improving the symptoms of illnesses just mentioned.[ad#afterpost]
- S. Chrubasik et al. 2000. Treatment of low back pain exacerbations with willow bark extract: a randomized double-blind study. The American Journal of Medicine
- B. Schmid et al. 2001. Efficacy and tolerability of a standardized willow bark extract in patients with osteoarthritis: randomized placebo-controlled, double blind clinical trial. Phytother. Res.
- Willow Bark. University of Maryland Medical Center.
- What is White Willow Bark? About.com