Sometimes you can tell a lot about an herb just from its name. Cramp bark is one of those herbs with most of its benefits related to relieving cramps and spasms.
Cramp bark was often used by European herbalists and Native Americans for pains and cramping throughout the whole body. It was especially beneficial for women: during their menstrual cycles and before, during, and after labor.
Here's more about the benefits of cramp bark and how to use it today!
What Is Cramp Bark?
Cramp bark may be a more familiar herb than you think. Its botanical name is Viburnum opulus, and it also goes by the names of Guelder rose, highbush cranberry, and snowball tree.
Two cultivars of Viburnum opulus ('Roseum' and 'Sterile') are frequently used ornamentally and known as snowball bushes or viburnum snowball bushes. You may recognize them with their hydrangea-like blooms and sweet smell.
In its natural habitat, cramp bark is a shrub that can grow up to 15' tall and wide. It blooms with large white flowers and produces bright red, edible berries. Cramp bark is originally native to Europe but has been naturalized in the woodlands of the U.S. and Canada.
True to its name, the bark of Viburnum opulus is most frequently used medicinally. The berries can be eaten as a food source and contain high amounts of vitamin C. They can also be used to make a natural dye.
The bark is usually harvested in the spring before the buds open or in the fall before the leaves change color. It contains many different plant compounds that give it antispasmodic, relaxant, and sedative properties. (1)
Cramp bark should not be confused with a similar- and related- herb known as black haw (Viburnum prunifolium).
Health Benefits of Cramp Bark
Relief for Menstrual Cramping
One of the most frequent and traditional uses for cramp bark is to help relieve menstrual cramps.
The bark contains an active compound called scopoletin. Scopoletin is thought to be a derivative of coumarin (which you may recognize as the active compound in turmeric). It likely plays a large role in cramp bark's antispasmodic effects. (2)
As an antispasmodic, cramp bark can ease muscle spasms that are causing cramps. (3) It relaxes the uterus, getting to the source of painful cramping instead of just covering up the pain. Cramp bark also contains methyl salicylate, which is a weak acting precursor to salicylic acid (used in aspirin). This gives it mild pain-relieving effects as well.
For cramping during (or before) your cycle, cramp bark is typically used as a decoction (tea made by simmering the bark) or tincture. Some herbalists recommend starting to take it a few days before you expect the cramping to start.
For other natural options, try these PMS home remedies.
Relief for Afterbirth Cramping & Pain
The antispasmodic and pain-relieving benefits of cramp bark are also helpful postpartum.
Often called afterbirth pains or afterpains, sharp abdominal cramps can persist in the week after giving birth. These come from your uterus shrinking back to normal size. Often, the pains will be worse while nursing, and they may get worse each time you have another baby. (4)
Cramp bark helps to ease uterus contractions and cramping. Other herbs like red raspberry leaf (a uterine tonic) and blue cohosh (also antispasmodic) can be added to help even more.
For cramp and pain relief postpartum, try drinking this herbal Afterbirth Ease tea for the first week after giving birth.
Unsurprisingly, cramp bark can also relax muscles and ease spasms in other parts of your body.
Traditionally, it's been used for all types of spasms/cramping, including gastrointestinal and bronchial. Cramp bark can also be used internally or topically for leg cramps, back spasms, etc.
For cramped muscles, you can try a warm poultice made with cramp bark. Taking it as a tea or tincture can help as well, and the two can be used in conjunction. For recurring cramps, magnesium supplements are often used along with cramp bark, since magnesium deficiency can cause muscle cramping. (5)
Other Benefits of Cramp Bark
There are several other traditional benefits of cramp bark that are less frequently used today.
Because of its antispasmodic properties, cramp bark has been used to help with spasmodic (dry, repeated) coughing. It can also be helpful for tension headaches and migraines, since it relaxes muscles.
Some herbalists recommend cramp bark to help with restless legs syndrome. It can help relieve the spasms and aid you in falling asleep but won't address the underlying cause (such as magnesium deficiency).
Finally, cramp bark has been used in the past to help with the pain of urinary tract infections and other bladder infections. Again, it won't get rid of the infection itself but may provide some much needed relief in the meantime.
How to Use Cramp Bark
You can buy dried cramp bark to use at home or purchase it as a ready-made tincture or tea bag. The most common ways of using the bark are as a tea, tincture, or topical poultice.
To make a tea, you'll need to decoct the bark. This simply means combining it with water (4-6 tablespoons of dried herb per quart of water) and simmering for 20-30 minutes. You can then strain the mixture and add a sweetener if desired.
Because cramp bark does have a strong, slightly acrid taste, you can also add a cinnamon stick and a few cloves into your decoction for flavor.
Taking normal doses of cramp bark is unlikely to cause any side effects. Large doses may cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Many herbalists caution against using cramp bark if you are allergic to aspirin. It contains a compound similar (though milder) to the active ingredient in aspirin.
Speak to your doctor and/or midwife before using cramp bark during pregnancy. It's also not generally recommended for young children.
A final precaution is to only buy your cramp bark from a reputable seller. In the past, the bark has been adulterated or substituted with mountain maple and other Viburnum species that have no health benefits and may be harmful.
Find Cramp Relief
There isn't a much more self-explanatory herb than cramp bark. It can help with all kinds of muscle and uterus cramps including menstrual cramping, afterbirth pains, and general muscle cramps and spasms.
Safe to use, cramp bark is one herb that many women can benefit from. Try it out for yourself!