Traditional Chinese medicine has been treating headaches and back pain for thousands of years with the Corydalis plant, a member of the poppy family whose stems and roots are ground and boiled in hot vinegar to create a medicine.
While the plant has not received much attention in the west, a new study published last week in the journal Current Biology has identified a chemical compound in the plant that can significantly relieve three different types of pain in mice.
"This medicine goes back thousands of years, and it is still around because it works," Olivier Civelli, study author and pharmacologist at the University of California, tells the Los Angeles Times. "The question is, what makes it work? There are many compounds inside this plant."
The researchers examined over 80 specific chemicals in the Corydalis plant and discovered that the chemical dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB) was responsible for alleviating pain.
DHCB was shown to relieve temporary acute pain comparable to a broken ankle or a burn in humans, inflammatory pain such as swollen joints, and chronic pain from nerve damage.
Furthermore, it reduced pain without building up resistance to the chemical, which the researchers suggest means it can one day be used to manage low-level chronic pain in humans.
"We have good pain medications for acute pain such as codeine or morphine, and inflammatory pain such as aspirin or acetaminophen," Civelli tells the International Business Times. "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 compound works in a similar way to morphine by binding to receptors that produce dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure.
Civelli's goal now is to find any other compounds within the plant that may prove helpful in the treatment of specific diseases or disorders.
"Our goal is to find the most powerful of those compounds," he adds.