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Traditional Chinese Herb May Treat Pain More Effectively Than Opiates

Update Date: Jan 02, 2014 12:47 PM EST

Traditional Chinese medicine relieves chronic pain, a new study suggests.

Scientists found that a century-old Chinese pain reliever called dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB), which is found in the roots of the flowering plant Corydalis, can help fight chronic pain.

"Our study reports the discovery of a new natural product that can relieve pain," lead researcher Olivier Civelli of the University of California, Irvine, said in a news release. "This analgesic acts in animal assays against the three types of pain that afflict humans, including acute, inflammatory, and neuropathic or chronic pain."

Researchers had initially set out to catalogue all of the chemical components of traditional Chinese medicine. Civelli and his team wanted to focus on Corydalis plants, which are used treat pain like headaches and back pain.  The study wanted to see if the plant contained similar compounds as those found in morphine.

"We landed on DHCB but rapidly found that it acts not through the morphine receptor but through other receptors, in particular one that binds dopamine," Civelli explained.

Researchers said the latest findings support previous research suggesting that the dopamine D2 receptor plays a role in pain sensation.

Researchers found that Corydalis extracts or isolated DHCB work against all types of pain. They believe the plant is especially helpful to those who suffer persistent, low-level chronic pain because it doesn't lose effectiveness the way traditional opiate drugs do.

"We have good pain medications for acute pain: codeine or morphine, for example," Civelli said. "We have pain medication for inflammatory pain, such as aspirin or acetaminophen. We do not have good medications for chronic pain. DHCB may not be able to relieve strong chronic pain, but may be used for low-level chronic pain."

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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