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by Howie Brounstein
I have been plagued by many a toothache in my time. Although there is no replacement for dental work and proper dental hygiene, once you have a toothache, there are several herbal methods for treating it without pharmaceuticals.
Herbs for a toothache are best taken in tincture form, because the alcohol content is disinfecting and astringent, which helps with the infection and to reduce inflammation. I suggest taking a teaspoon of the tincture (undiluted) and holding it in your mouth, gently swishing it through the problematic area for as long as possible. After that, you can swallow the tincture, or spit it out, depending on the tincture.
There are two strategies for dealing with the toothaches:
- Removing the Infection Which Causes the Pain
- Relieving the Pain
Removing the Infection and Inflammation Causing the Pain
This is the best strategy for a toothache. If you simply put out the fire within your tooth, then the pain will go away. However, this will not cure your tooth problem. If you do not seek dental care, the infection will eventually return. This sets you up for progressively advancing dental problems. Cavities need to be filled; rotten, dead teeth need to be removed.
If you do seek dental help and have an infection or abscess, the dentist will not work on you until the infection is gone. She will prescribe an antibiotic to fight the infection, and when it subsides, will proceed with the dental work. Sometimes the dentist is unavailable until Thursday, in which case you can get started on relieving the toothache while you wait for an appointment. Some patients do not want to take pharmaceuticals for a variety of reasons, and can use these herbs instead. The following herbs can be very helpful in addition to or instead of antibiotics.
A Word of Caution: An abscessed tooth, one where the swelling and inflammation is progressing from your tooth to other parts of your face, is life- threatening. It is not a time for self treatment.
An astringent wash can be very helpful as a first defense in the early stages of a toothache. Astringents are antiseptic and help shrink swollen tissue. Astringent washes can be used concurrently with antibiotics and can be of some help in the maintenance of healthy gums. I use this type of mouthwash every once in a while, even when my teeth and gums are healthy. Do not swallow an astringent mouthwash, as this can cause an upset stomach.
The standard herbal mouthwash astringent is Myrrh Gum. I personally do not use this herb, because of my bioregional beliefs. There are so many astringents available that I recommend using the herb you feel best about. A standard British mouthwash herb is Garden Sage, Salvia officinalis. My personal favorite is White Sage, Salvia apiana. As an added benefit, the bitter principles in the sage jump-starts my digestive system, helping me to want to eat breakfast.
Astringents will not remove the pain directly, but they will help dampen the fire within. Willow tincture, Salix spp., may be the astringent of choice for some toothaches, as it will act as an astringent and a topical analgesic to relieve pain. Try a teaspoon as a wash, and then swallow the tincture for an added system-wide analgesic effect.
An herb with a strong antibacterial effect both topically and systemically is of great value for coping with the infections involved with a toothache. My herbs of choice are the herbs that contain berberine, such as Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, Goldthread, Coptis spp., and Oregon Grape Root, Berberis spp. For ecological reasons, I always use Oregon Grape. Three droppers to a teaspoon of tincture taken three to four times a day, held in the mouth for as long as possible around the affected area and then swallowed for a system wide effect, is the best treatment for toothaches that I know of. I once would not mix berberine containing herbs with pharmaceutical antibiotics, but recently have come to believe with current research that these herbs my actually increase the effectiveness of antibiotics.
This reminds me of the time I was camping alone with my wife on a remote island off the coast of Patagonia. My tooth started to ache, and the White Willow, Salix alba, I tried didn’t help. Within a day, my tooth had abscessed, and the area below the tooth on my neck began to swell. Certainly, I needed dental attention, however, Juan the Boatman wasn’t due back for days yet. Luckily, I had my trusty Oregon Grape Root, Berberis nervosa, tincture on hand to help with this. Immediately, the Berberis nervosa began to take effect, and within the first 24 hours the swelling had all but subsided, although the pain was still intense. Unfortunately, at this point I had ran out of my tincture. I had given most of it to another traveler with an infection before I had reached the island!
Fear not, brave readers, for I did not die that day, and still live to tell this tale. One of the reasons that I was on the island was to research the strength of the island’s local Berberis. I had harvested some native Berberis sp. roots earlier that week and had immersed them in some sort of Chilean alcohol. Although I didn’t consider this a finished tincture, it was all I had. Pouring some of the already golden yellow medicine off the top of the soaking herb, I began to drink this elixir of virtue. Ultimately I was healed, and continued my botanizing under the Southern Cross.
Relieving the Pain
Pain relief is the band-aid treatment. To take analgesic herbs alone for a toothache is to invite disaster. If they work, you won’t feel the fire, but the fire will continue to burn unnoticed in your jaw. This could lead to further bone degradation, and life-threatening abscesses. An abscessed tooth is no joke; many folks died from this before the advent of modern dentistry.
Available herbs include:
Salicylate herbs – Barks of White Willow, Oak, Poplar, etc. Tinctures of these herbs are also astringent, thus helping to relieve the inflammation. Sometimes this is all you need to quell the fire of your toothache if it is just starting and the inflammation is minimal.
Cow Parsnip Seed Tincture: 5 drops or so of this tincture can be very helpful for relieving the pain of some toothaches, if the problem is near surface.
Clove Oil: Pure clove oil can help with toothache pain, but unlike the other herbs discussed, it can cause further irritation of the gums with consistent use. I do not use oil of clove because, in the end, it can make matters worse.
Drop Dosage Herbs:
If the salicylates and Cow Parsnip Seed fail, there are potentially toxic drop dosage herbs that are helpful, starting with Bleeding Hearts, Dicentra formosa. These herbs can be deadly if not used properly. I do not recommend them for self treatment unless you are an experienced herbalist. Most strong pain medication is regulated by law for good reasons; the strong pain killing herbs are just as dangerous. On the stronger end of these types of herbs is Opium Tincture. Although illegal in the USA, this would definitely take away the pain.