CayenneCapsicum frutescens, Capsicum annuum
• Topical Uses: Peripheral Neuropathy (Due to Diabetes , HIV , and Other Causes) , Osteoarthritis, Post-herpetic Neuralgia
• Oral Uses: Dyspepsia
• Topical Uses: Back Pain, Cluster Headaches, Fibromyalgia, Nerve Pain Following Surgery, Psoriasis, Soft Tissue Pain
• Oral Uses: Protecting the Stomach from Ulcers Caused by Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
The capsicum family includes red peppers, bell peppers, pimento, and paprika, but the most famous medicinal member of this family is the common cayenne pepper.
Cayenne and related peppers have a long history of use as digestive aids in many parts of the world, but the herb's recent popularity has, surprisingly, come through conventional medicine.
What Is Cayenne Used for Today?
Many people think that hot peppers cause inflammation to tissues, and that this is the source of the classic hot pepper sensation. However, hot peppers don’t actually have any damaging effect; they merely simulate the sensations produced by damage. (Herbs like garlic , ginger , horseradish, and mustard actually can cause tissue damage.)
Here’s how it works: All hot peppers contain a substance called capsaicin. When applied to tissues, capsaicin causes release of a chemical called substance P. Substance P is ordinarily released when tissues are damaged; it is part of the system the body uses to detect injury. When hot peppers artificially release substance P, they trick the nervous system into thinking that an injury has occurred. The result: a sensation of burning pain.
When capsaicin is applied regularly to a part of the body, substance P becomes depleted in that location. This is why individuals who consume a lot of hot peppers gradually build up a tolerance.
It’s also the basis for a number of medical uses of capsaicin. When levels of substance P are reduced in an area, all pain in that area is somewhat reduced. Because of this effect, capsaicin cream is widely used for the treatment of various painful conditions.
Under the brand name Zostrix, a cream containing concentrated capsaicin has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia, the pain that often lingers after an attack of shingles . There is also relatively good evidence that topical capsaicin can modestly decrease the pain of diabetic peripheral neuropathy , other forms of peripheral neuropathy nerve pain following cancer surgery, as well as the pain of arthritis. Capsaicin cream may also be helpful for other forms of pain, including fibromyalgia , back pain , and cluster headaches . 1,2,3,4 However, the benefits seen with capsaicin are seldom dramatic; in many cases, other pain relieving treatments are used simultaneously.
Besides pain-related conditions, some evidence indicates that topical capsaicin may be helpful for psoriasis and possibly other skin conditions as well (especially those that involve itching).
Cayenne can be taken internally as well. It appears that oral use of cayenne might reduce the pain of minor indigestion ( dyspepsia ). This may seem like an odd use of the herb; intuitively, it seems that hot peppers should be hard on the stomach. However, remember that hot peppers don’t actually damage tissues—they merely produce sensations similar to those caused by actual damage. Apparently, by depleting substance P in the stomach, they reduce sensations of discomfort. In fact, some evidence suggests that oral use of cayenne or capsaicin can actually protect the stomach against ulcers caused by anti-inflammatory drugs . 5,6,7 However, contrary to some reports, cayenne does not appear to be able to kill Helicobacter pylori , the stomach bacteria implicated as a major cause of ulcers. 9
What is the Scientific Evidence for Cayenne?
Oral Uses of Cayenne
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 30 individuals with dyspepsia were given either 2.5 g daily of red pepper powder (divided up and taken prior to meals) or placebo for 5 weeks. 13 By the third week of treatment, individuals taking red pepper were experiencing significant improvements in pain, bloating, and nausea as compared to placebo, and these relative improvements lasted through the end of the study.
Topical Uses of Cayenne
All double-blind studies of topical capsaicin (or cayenne) suffer from one drawback: It isn’t really possible to hide the burning sensation that occurs during initial use of the treatment. For this reason, such studies probably aren’t truly double-blind. It has been suggested that instead of an inactive placebo, researchers should use some other substance (such as camphor) that causes at least mild burning. However, such treatments might also have therapeutic benefits; they have a long history of use for pain as well.
Because of these complications, the evidence for topical treatments cited below is less meaningful than it might at first appear.
Capsaicin cream is well established as a modestly helpful pain-relieving treatment for:
- Post-herpetic neuropathy (the pain that lingers after an attack of shingles)14-16,37
- Peripheral neuropathy (nerve pain that occurs most commonly as a complication of diabetes , but may occur with HIV as well as other conditions)1,17-23,35
- Pain after cancer surgery24-27 or hernia repair36
Supportive evidence also exists for the use of topical capsaicin for soft tissue pain (muscles, tendons, and ligaments)40 and pain following hernia repair.36 Weak evidence supports its use for fibromyalgia . 4
Actual cayenne rather than capsaicin has been tested for pain, as well. A 3-week, double-blind trial of 154 individuals with back pain found that cayenne applied topically as a “plaster” improved pain to a greater extent than placebo. 30
A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of nearly 200 individuals found that use of topical capsaicin can improve itching as well as overall severity of psoriasis . 31 Benefits were also seen in a smaller double-blind study of topical capsaicin for psoriasis. 32
Intranasal Uses of Cayenne
One study of 208 patients with idiopathic rhinitis found that using a capsicum nasal spray 3 times daily for 3 days (4 mcg/puff) may reduce symptom frequency. 38
Capsaicin creams are approved over-the-counter drugs and should be used as directed. If the burning sensation that occurs with initial use is too severe, using weaker forms of the cream at first may be advisable.
For treatment of dyspepsia, cayenne may be taken at a dosage of 0.5 to 1.0 g three times daily (prior to meals).
Capsaicin creams commonly cause an unpleasant burning sensation when they are first applied; this sensation disappears over subsequent days as treatment is continued.
1. McCleane G. Topical application of doxepin hydrochloride, capsaicin and a combination of both produces analgesia in chronic human neuropathic pain: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Br J Clin Pharmacol . 2000;49:574-579.
34. Altomare DF, Rinaldi M, La Torre F, et al. Red Hot Chili Pepper and Hemorrhoids: The Explosion of a Myth: Results of a Prospective, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Crossover Trial. Dis Colon Rectum . 2006 May 19. [Epub ahead of print]
36. Aasvang EK, Hansen JB, Malmstrom J, et al. The effect of wound instillation of a novel purified capsaicin formulation on postherniotomy pain: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Anesth Analg. 2008;107:282-291.
37. Backonja M, Wallace MS, Blonsky ER, et al. NGX-4010, a high-concentration capsaicin patch, for the treatment of postherpetic neuralgia: a randomised, double-blind study. Lancet Neurol. 2008;7:1106-1112.
39. De Silva V, El-Metwally A, Ernst E, Lewith G, Macfarlane GJ. Evidence for the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines in the management of osteoarthritis: a systematic review. Rheumatology. 2010 Dec 17.
Last reviewed June 2011 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last updated Updated: 6/27/2011
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