Cooling herbs for muscle aches and tension tend to be relaxing, permanent (non-diffusive), and anti-inflammatory, and thus relieve pain and tension through directly relaxing and cooling the area. These herbs are generally most appropriate on injuries or issues that are hot in nature. Meaning sharp, stabbing, tense, sometimes red, and better with rest and worse from heat.
Please note that I do not advise using ice on musco-skeletal injuries, cool water can be appropriate but in general the overt cooling of an injury will just slow the healing process and possibly lead to an acute issue becoming a chronic one.
Lobelia – Lobelia inflata
Overview: An acrid antispasmodic, Lobelia is excellent for acute injuries accompanied by muscle spasms and notable tension. It can be helpful applied to areas where joint/skeletal issues are causing muscular spasms, and also to recent injuries with signs of heat and tension. Additionally, Lobelia can be useful in cases where overt emotional tension is manifesting as cramping or spasming in any part of the body.
Hint: Lobelia is specific to significant tension with muscles spasms, especially those that move around or vary widely in intensity.
Preparation: Liniment (alcoholic or acetic tincture) or infused oil of seeding plant.
Note: Excessive external application of Lobelia liniment can cause some sensitive individuals to feel nauseous. Apply with moderation and build from there based on tolerance.
Comfrey - Symphytum spp.
Overview: Comfrey is a rather infamous herb that I also consider invaluable for external application in tissue healing where there is acute trauma, including post surgery recuperation.
Hint: Comfrey excels at cooling inflammation and knitting damaged tissues back together. It is most specific to acute injuries or post surgery conditions where heat and dryness are preventing full healing.
Preparation: Comfrey is soluble in water, oil, and alcohol, and can be prepared in many ways, including liniment, massage oil, salve, poultice, foment, soaks, and more.
Note: Comfrey can initiate very quick healing so make sure that there is no infection, dislocations, unset fractures etc., so that Comfrey doesn’t knit together something not yet ready for healing.
Alder – Alnus spp.
Overview: Alder is a cooling anti-inflammatory with some pain relieving properties, and a general affinity for tissue healing. It is widely applicable in musco-skeletal injuries and inflammation, and can be used wherever there are signs of heat excess with pain, tenderness, and tissue trauma.
Hint: Alder is blood (part of the mechanism for pain relief) and lymph moving while still being cooling, therefore being an excellent herb for almost any hot/acute muscular injury.
Preparation: Leaves and bark an be extracted in alcohol, oil, or water. A great addition to almost any liniment, salve, or massage oil. Also makes a wonderful soak for sore muscles.
Note: Alder is gentle and generally without negative side effects, but it’s still cooling, so please combine with more warming herbs for chronic injuries or cold signs.
Credit, References, and Resources
7Song – personal correspondence
Jim McDonald – personal correspondence and http://herbcraft.org/backpain.html
Michael Moore – Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
Matthew Wood – Book of Herbal Wisdom
Darcy Williamson – Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains