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Ancient Minty Painkiller Worked, Modern Study Suggests

Ancient Minty Painkiller Worked, Modern Study

The doctors of ancient Greece and China had it right when they applied cool and minty salves to soothe aches and pains, a new study suggests.

A synthetic treatment with the same properties as mint oil is an effective painkiller when applied directly to the skin. The new cooling compounds could be especially beneficial to millions suffering with the chronic pain of arthritis and diseases affecting nerve endings, scientists say.

“They work particularly well in ongoing pain states where the nervous system becomes hypersensitive so even the lightest touch becomes painful,” said study leader Susan Fleetwood-Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh.

Ancient smarts

Healers in ancient Chinese societies treated injuries with mint oil, which contains anti-inflammatory properties and produces a cooling effect on the skin.

Cold compresses were also recommended in the fifth century BC by Hippocrates, who is considered the father of modern medicine. Swelling and joint pain could be eased by the numbing effect of copious amounts of cold water, the ancient Greek scholar said. 

The new compounds use the same soothing chemicals found in mint oil, but incorporate a few other important elements that work specifically with a pain receptor nerve in the skin called TRTM8, newly discovered by Fleetwood-Walker and her team.

“Chemicals in mint oil and cooling the skin can activate these painkilling nerves but neither traditional method is very specific,” she told LiveScience. “We have shown that the TRTM8 receptor is the critical molecular target for this pain killing effect.”

Special analgesic ingredients in the compounds—telling the receptor to turn off pain messages going to the brain—make them even more effective, the results showed.

Fewer side-effects

The minty formula offers significant advantages versus some other pain medications, which do not always work on sufferers of long-term pain, say the researchers.

“Some types of chronic pain, especially following nerve injury, are resistant to morphine,” Fleetwood-Walker said. “These compounds act powerfully as pain killers on many types of chronic pain including nerve injury pain.”

Because the compounds are applied externally, they should also come with a shorter list of potential adverse reactions, she said. “They seem to be just as powerful as morphine, but work through an entirely separate mechanism, with what we think will be less side effects.

”The findings appear in an August issue of the journal Current Biology.

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Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.