The stem that stanches the strain |

The stem that stanches the strain

Quasimodo (a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame) had it all wrong. Instead of pining for Esmeralda atop his bell tower, he should have convinced the woman to bring him a few stems from the cramp bark bush. Maybe he could have relieved some of that hunched over back pain, which I’m certain caused a great deal of muscle tension. Standing upright, he could then put his best foot forward and make a vertical career move from his bell-ringer position.

Alas, Quasi unfortunately didn’t know about the benefits of this most wonderful herb. Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) is one of those herbs which is aptly named.


The word conjures a specific visual. That visual usually involves a woman lying on a bed in the fetal position right before or during her menstrual cycle, emitting various low, moaning sounds.

However, I am here to tell you that the next time this scene takes place, the woman does not have to suffer. Not when cramp bark is considered the herb of choice for painful, cramping menstrual periods.

For literally centuries, women all over the world have employed the stem bark from this abundant 12-foot, showy shrub to put the kibosh on cramps. The herb is one of the best and safest antispasmodics and sedatives in the herb world, working its little bark off to reduce minor to intense muscular and even intestinal spasms. In addition, cramp bark relaxes the ovaries and uterus, allowing the body to gently unfurl until all the kinks are smoothed out.

The herb can be used either alone or in formula for menstrual cramping. Herbalists often suggest combining equal parts of black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) – a kissing cousin of cramp bark – and taking it in either tincture or tea form. Other herbs that work well in menstrual cramp formulas are squaw vine (Mitchella repens), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). If you want to employ the excellent sedative properties of skullcap, you will want to use the fresh plant tincture.

While cramp bark is specifically known for calming menstrual pain, this soothing herb can also be employed during menopause to prevent excessive menstrual flow. The tincture can be taken by itself or added to an infusion of red raspberry leaf tea.

But wait! I don’t want all the men out there thinking that cramp bark is just some “woman’s herb.” The fact is, if a guy can get past the herb’s name association, he might discover that it holds a plethora of possibilities for him as well. (Mind you, everything I mention below also applies to women).

To give you an example:

Intestinal or rectal cramping – This is often due to stress where you feel “all tied up inside.” Herbalists often identify the cramping as “rhythmic” (i.e., cramping in measured waves and/or cramping that tends to be “pounding” in nature.) Rectal cramping can occur for those who tend to tighten their sphincter muscle, consciously or unconsciously, whenever they are under pressure. Don’t laugh. You probably do it and you don’t even know it. And this, of course, can lead to…

Tension headaches – Notice the word “tension” keeps coming up. For those stress headaches that come about from too much outside pressure, try cramp bark in tincture or in decoction form. (See the end of the column for specific doses and preparations).

Muscular cramp preventative – If you are prone to “charley horses” when you exert yourself one step too far, try 30 drops of cramp bark tincture under your tongue and/or rub the tincture into the affected muscle. This can also work after the charley horse has kicked in. You can make a cramp bark cream by combining one tablespoon of the tincture to three tablespoons of rosewater and glycerine. Stir the mixture thoroughly and briskly apply to the muscle as you would a liniment. You can also try a greasier alternative, yet one which does the job. To one tablespoon of castor oil, add one teaspoon of cramp bark tincture. Blend the two and apply to the cramping muscle.

As far as doses and preparation of the herb, here’s how it’s done.

The tincture dose is 30 to 90 drops. The tea dose is two heaping teaspoons of the herb steeped in 16 ounces of hot water. Cramp bark can also be made into a decoction (i.e., simmering the bark for 20 minutes in hot distilled water). This makes a much stronger brew for those times when your muscles are really tense.

Cramp bark can be taken long-term (i.e., three to six weeks) without any worries. Obviously, if you have serious muscle tension with cramping that persists longer than six consecutive weeks, it might be a good idea to see a chiropractor or physician.

This aptly named herb is easy to remember and easy on the body. So the next time you scream “I’m all cramped up!” quit your complaining and grab the bark with the muscle-soothing bite.

The information in this column is not meant to take the place of your physician, nor is it intended to treat, diagnose or prescribe. Pregnant or nursing women should consult their doctor before using herbal therapy.

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