Nerve pain – also called neuropathic pain – affects millions of people every year. Research is finding that a component of Cayenne herb (Capsicum annuum) called capsaicin can significantly reduce neuropathic pain along with pain associated with shingles – called postherpetic neuralgia.
What is neuropathic pain?
Pain related to the nervous system is typically referred to neuropathic. It often occurs after some kind of injury to the nervous system. Such an injury can be a result of an accident or an inflammatory response that becomes acute.
Examples of neuropathic or nerve pain include chronic low back pain, some cases of arthritis, type-2 diabetes, and some types of headaches. It can also include injuries to the spine or brain.
Shingles pain is a form of neuropathic pain
The pain after an infection of shingles is a good example of nerve pain because the Herpes zoster virus can damage the nervous system, producing a lingering, acute form of pain.
Shingles or herpes zoster affects a third of the adult population in the U.S. at some point in their lives. For many people, this is a one-time infection that goes away after a few weeks. For others, however, the infection develops into significant pain – something called postherpetic neuralgia.
The beginning of a shingles event will show as a regional rash on one side of the body. The rash will typically turn into fluid-filled pimples that will crust over within ten days or so. About one in five people will develop postherpetic neuralgia, which can become painful. This postherpetic neuralgia is a form of neuropathic pain.
Esteemed medical researchers recommend capsaicin
You know that a natural product has broken through the barriers of pharmaceutical medicine when a reference like the American Family Physician recommends its use. This is what precisely was included in the November 2017 issue of the AFP Journal.
The panel of medical researchers utilized references of clinical studies that have shown that capsaicin significantly reduces pain in postherpetic neuralgia.
A 2017 review of clinical research from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research also referred to as INSERM found that an 8 percent capsaicin cream was recommended for neuropathic pain, including that resulting from shingles – Herpes zoster postherpetic neuralgia.
The medical researchers investigated 200 scientific studies and papers on capsaicin for what they termed localized neuropathic pain.
The researchers found that skin patches with 8 percent capsaicin significantly reduced localized neuropathic pain. They concluded:
“Subsequent improvement in neuropathic pain occurs in 6–12 weeks with the use of a single 8% capsaicin patch.”
In 2017, Oxford University medical researchers conducted a Cochrane review of clinical research on capsaicin for nerve pain.
The researchers analyzed eight clinical studies that included 2,488 people. They also analyzed four studies that included 1,272 people with Herpes zoster pain.
The researchers found that 8 percent capsaicin cream or patches significantly reduces neuropathic pain. Many of the studies showed pain intensity reductions of more than 30 percent after eight weeks. Twelve weeks of use showed pain intensity reductions of more than 50 percent compared to control or placebo groups.
The researchers also found that pain reduction levels for capsaicin were comparable to that achieved from pharmaceutical pain interventions.
Positive side effects from capsaicin use
Pain reduction using pharmaceuticals often comes with significant side effects, such as gastrointestinal issues (aspirin and others), liver issues (acetaminophen) and others.
The 2017 Oxford study found that adverse effect rates were comparable to the adverse effect rates reported by placebo groups. In other words, very few adverse effects.
At the same time, some of the research has shown that capsaicin comes with positive side effects. The Oxford study researchers reported about capsaicin:
“… for those who do obtain high levels of pain relief there are additional improvements in sleep, fatigue, depression and an improved quality of life.”
What about using whole cayenne pepper?
The primary pain-relieving ingredient in cayenne is capsaicin. Capsaicin creams and patches use formulations with precise percentages to help control the “hot” reactions that raw cayenne pepper can cause.
Whole cayenne pepper can result in skin reactions, depending on the person and skin type. But this doesn’t mean that everyone will have a bad reaction to whole cayenne. Herbalists have been using cayenne plasters for centuries.
Cayenne plasters are made by sprinkling a little cayenne pepper on a wet towel and then applying the towel to the skin with a wrap. Before this is done, it is important that the skin is tested with a small amount of the pepper. This is best done by an herbalist.
Clinical studies have shown that cayenne plasters are useful for pain. For example, a 2006 study from South Korea tested 108 children following inguinal hernia repair. They applied either a cayenne plaster or a placebo during their rehabilitation. They found the cayenne (capsicum) plaster significantly reduced post-op pain for the children when applied six hours or later after the operation.
Other herbalists have simply made creams with cayenne together with other compounds like aloe and calendula.
Note also that cayenne pepper and capsaicin can burn if they are accidentally rubbed into the eyes. For this reason, washing the hands after handling a patch or cream is imperative.
That isn’t to say that cayenne cannot be utilized internally. Herbalists have been recommending whole cayenne pepper internally for pain for centuries. The typical recommendation for cayenne for pain is to consume the whole herb powder (red pepper powder) with a soothing juice such as carrot juice. Better is to use cayenne in a capsule or even wrapped in a rice paper film with the carrot juice. Enteric capsules can be used to deliver more to the intestines.
Cayenne in these forms can indeed reduce neuropathic pain when taken internally. The use of skin patches and creams simply absorbs the capsaicin through the skin. Capsaicin can also be absorbed through the stomach and intestinal walls.
For example, cayenne has also been shown to reduce intestinal pain and cramping when taken internally. A 2011 study of 50 patients with IBS found that enteric-coated cayenne pills significantly reduced IBS abdominal pain.
Talk to your doctor first about using capsaicin or cayenne for pain.
Saguil A, Kane S, Mercado M, Lauters R. Herpes Zoster and Postherpetic Neuralgia: Prevention and Management. Am Fam Physician. 2017 Nov 15;96(10):656-663.
Derry S, Rice AS, Cole P, Tan T, Moore RA. Topical capsaicin for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Jan 13;1:CD007393. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007393.pub4.
Pickering G, Martin E, Tiberghien F, Delorme C, Mick G. Localized neuropathic pain… Drug Des Devel Ther. 2017 Sep 13;11:2709-2718. doi: 10.2147/DDDT.S142630. eCollection 2017.
Johnson RW, Rice AS. Clinical practice. Postherpetic neuralgia. N Engl J Med. 2014 Oct 16;371(16):1526-33. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcp1403062.
Kim KS, Kim DW, Yu YK. The effect of capsicum plaster in pain after inguinal hernia repair in children. Paediatr Anaesth. 2006 Oct;16(10):1036-41.
Bortolotti M, Porta S. Red pepper on symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome… Dig Dis Sci. 2011 Nov;56(11):3288-95. doi: 10.1007/s10620-011-1740-9.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.