Natural painkillers (part 1) – Corydalis for chronic pain (ie. arthritis)

Corydalis is a genus containing over 300 species of plants indigenous to many different parts of the world, most of which are known medicinally for their use in the treatment of pain and many which are cultivated in gardens for their pretty flowers and foliage. There are several species which are acceptable for use in Chinese medicine, including Corydalis turtschaninovii, C. repens, C. ambigua and C. glaucencens.

Ethnobotany – Corydalis (yanhusuo)

Corydalis (Corydalis turtschaninovii – yanhusuo), a member of the poppy family, has been used successfully for over 2,000 years within the system of traditional Chinese herbalism to inhibit minor, everyday pain. Corydalis is regarded as a qi regulating and blood moving, vitalizing herb. Most blood vitalizer herbs are used for pain relief in traditional chinese medicine (TCM).

The Ojibwa used it as a stimulant, the root smoke was inhaled to clear the head and revive the patient.

Corydlis montana was a known rheumatic remedy among the Navajo indians. Navajo use Corydalis to stop diarrhea. An infusion is taken to relieve pain and cure sores (including those associated with childbirth).


It is pungent, warming, and slightly bitter. In Chinese medicine it is characterized as entering the qi and blood level and promoting the qi movement and blood circulation. It is an excellent herb for relieving pain and its action is steady and strong. In clinical practice, it can be used alone and in TCM is considered to be a painkiller. If it is fried with a little vinegar, this increases its effect in relieving pain.


Recent research

Scientific tests have identified and named 20 active minor pain-killing alkaloids in corydalis, and chief among these is tetrahydropalmatine (THP), which inhibits the reticular-activating system in the brain stem. This system is composed of intertwined nerve fibers, called axons, which link the brain to the spinal cord. THP, in effect, deactivates the nerve cell pathway between where minor pain is felt and where it is registered. Corydalis has also been shown to support healthy cardiovascular processes such as regular heartbeat and blood pressure.

Researchers from the University of California found that an other constituent, dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB), isolated from the root of the plant, had a positive effect on the three primary types of human pain — acute, inflammatory, and chronic/neuropathic pain. “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” said Olivier Civelli, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Reports from Chinese researchers also note that 75 mg of THP daily was effective in reducing nerve pain in 78% of the patients tested. Painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea), abdominal pain after childbirth, and headache have also been reported to be successfully treated with THP.

In addition to its central nervous system effects, studies in the laboratory have shown the alkaloids from corydalis also have cardiovascular actions. For example, dl-THP has been shown to both decrease the stickiness of platelets and protect against stroke, as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate in animal studies. Additionally, it seems to exert an anti-arrhythmic action on the heart. This was found in a small double-blind clinical trial with patients suffering from a specific type of heart arrhythmia (e.g., supra-ventricular premature beat or SVPB). People taking 300–600 mg of dl-THP per day in tablet form, had a significantly greater improvement than those taking placebo pills.

Research has shown that the herb has a light hypnotic and sedative effect in many animals and reduces menstrual flow and pain in humans. In an other experiment, ingestion by humans produced no gastric side effects.

Micheal Tierra states that with the legalization of medical marijuana in some states, a good pain relieving formulation could be achieved with the combination of cannabis and corydalis. Marijuana-infused oil or ointment (made with lard) is a traditional Central American folk remedy for the relief of arthritis, sprains and other aches and pains. Combination of single herbs may be more effective if combined by a skillful herbalist.

How to Use It

For an analgesic or sedative effect, the crude, dried rhizome is usually recommended at 5–10 grams per day. Alternatively, one can take 10–20 ml per day of a 1:2 extract.

Corydalis is almost always used together with other herbs in formulas in TCM. For example, it is combined with herbs such as Frankincense and Myrrh for pain from injuries, with Cinnamon bark for menstrual pain, with Fennel for hernia pain, and with Liguisticum for headache. Its pain relieving properties can also be enhanced by frying the whole herb in vinegar.


Corydalis is contraindicated during pregnancy and nursing, as its strong blood moving characteristics could influence or detach a young fetus.


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