Natural anesthetics were used for centuries before modern medicine, and many are still employed today. At one time, mandrake root was used for its natural anesthetic properties, but it was replaced by other, less toxic alternatives. Opium and curare are plant-based anesthetics that have a long history and are still used today. There are also natural, topical anesthetics, including cocaine, derived from the coca leaf; wintergreen; and capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne and other hot peppers. Clove oil is a natural anesthetic commonly used topically for toothache.
The opium poppy produces a natural anesthetic. Its active ingredient is morphine, and other derivatives of the opium poppy have frequently been employed to anesthetize and eliminate pain. Large doses of opium were used to anesthetize surgical patients before ether was discovered. Laudanum, codeine, and heroin are some derivatives of the opium poppy that have been used extensively in western medicine. Opiate usage dropped after the addictive properties became known, but some opium derivatives, such as codeine and hydrocodone, are still used to relieve pain.
Curare is the sap from various plants native to rainforests in South America. Commonly known as arrow poison, it was used by indigenous cultures on the tips of darts shot from blowguns to paralyze prey. This paralytic effect allows curare to be used as an intravenous anesthetic. Curare relaxes the muscles, keeping a patient still during surgery.
Wintergreen is the source of an essential oil that contains natural anesthetic components. The same salicylates that make aspirin an effective pain reliever are present in wintergreen, and wintergreen cream can be used topically for arthritis, aching muscles, and gout. Wintergreen is also effective in treating the discomfort of backaches and the pain of tendinitis. A homemade anesthetic cream can be made by adding wintergreen leaves to white skin lotion and blending until a green color permeates the mixture.
Another natural anesthetic that contains salicylates is cayenne. All hot peppers have these pain-relieving constituents, in addition to the natural anesthetic capsaicin. Capsaicin is a popular ingredient in creams sold over the counter to rub on sore muscles and arthritic joins.
The plant kingdom is the most common source of natural anesthetics, but extreme cold can also be used to numb an area. Ice packs are often recommended to treat inflammation. The cold helps cools down blood vessels, reducing inflammation and anesthetizing the area to relieve pain. Running cold water over a sore muscle or aching joint can also relieve pain and inflammation.