Common Names

Cramp bark, guelder-rose, water elder, arrowwood, European cranberry
Botanical Name
Viburnum opulus
CAPRIFOLIACEAE ~ Honeysuckle Family

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What is it?

The well dried bark obtained from the stems of Cramp bark, a small, long-lived small tree that is native to Europe and Asia that has wide, three lobed leaves that it sheds every year.




How has it been used?

Cramp bark got its name exactly because it is good for cramps. It has had so much popular use as a medicine over the centuries that its common name reflects exactly what it has been used for.

Cramp bark is perhaps most thought of as a women’s herb for helping with painful menstruation but it is worth noting that there are lots of other traditional uses that show it has a general effect on spasm and tension elsewhere in the body. For example, Cramp bark has been historically used for migraine, asthma, biliary colic (from gall stones), renal colic (from kidney stones), and numerous different kinds of indigestion or bowel disturbances where cramp is the key feature.


Science on Cramp bark

Cramp bark was widely used in the 19th century with a great many anecdotal reports from the physicians of the time in testimony to it effects (see the historical note below for some examples of this), whilst there have not been any modern clinical trials with Cramp bark there have been some interesting laboratory studies all the same...

~ Water extracts of Cramp bark were shown to have a digitalis-like cardiotonic effect in heart muscle tissue but Cramp bark does not contain cardiac glycosides - this study means that something in the herb causes the heart to beat more strongly and pump more blood (Vlad L, Munta A, Crisan IG: Planta Med 1977, 31:228-231)

~ Another study showed that injection of Cramp bark caused a lowering of heart rate and a dropping of blood pressure. The authors suggested that Cramp bark had a direct action on the relaxing the muscles and also thought the herb might be potentiating the action of acetylcholinesterase (Nicholson JA, Darby TD, Jarboe CH: Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 1972, 140(2):457-461)

~ Laboratory studies showed that Cramp bark has relaxing effects on isolated uterine tissue. Extracts of Cramp bark were found to have inhibitory effects on the enzymes elastase, trypsin, and angiotensin in test tube studies (Jonadet M et al: Pharma Acta Helv 1989, 64(3):94-96)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of a handful of further studies and articles on Cramp bark are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Cramp bark

Cramp bark should not be taken in excessive doses for the reasons described below but this is not because of concerns about safety, it is an extremely safe herb that can and should be taken in pregnancy if there is concern for the uterus being overly tense; likewise, it may safely be used during breastfeeding and by the young and old.


Personal experiences

I find Cramp bark to be a simply fantastic herbal ally in clinical practice and have used a great deal of it for diverse people with many different problems; the common theme being that there is always too much tension in the physical body.

Cramp bark has an uncanny ability to relax and soften those places that get too hard, too tense, and I have seen it help shift remarkably stubborn health problems over and over again.

Cramp bark is excellent for too much physical tension anywhere but it works particularly well on those muscles in our bodies that we don’t have much control over i.e. our digestive and urinary tract muscles, our lungs and for women, the womb.

Cramp bark can be fantastic for period pain problems and can be equally as valuable for such common problems as constricted breathing, functional bowel disorders, heart palpitations and muscle aches and pains.

Anyone who is studying herbal medicine or who simply wants to learn more about these great plant allies will do well to take a small dose of Cramp bark tincture (or some sips of its decoction and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observe closely what they then feel happening in their body. I am sure that anyone who performs this old practice which we use to better understand the herb's 'action' will notice a palpable before and after difference when they do this. The words we use to describe such an action can only be a reflection of the reality of the feeling but when I have done this exercise with my colleagues or students the kinds of words that come up are 'softening, deepening, profoundly relaxing, warming, healing', incidentally our usual practice is to not let them know what they are testing until afterwards so they just listen to their body rather than any expectations of the mind.

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

As I talk about more in a moment, getting the dose right is critical to success with Cramp bark and perhaps if you who are reading this simply need the help of this herb right now then the above exercise will also be an ideal way for you to learn immediately and directly just how much of it you might need to take. Note that once you get that palpable action then taking more of it will not necessarily work better and in fact may do you less good, one of the mysteries of herbs and healing is that sometimes less is more!

In most cases the dose that a person can palpably feel only requires a modest amount; somewhere between as little as 5 drops and at the most up to about 20 drops in a single dose.

If a problem that needs Cramp bark's help is acute and immediate than I suggest using it frequently, even up to every couple of hours. You can start with a lower dose and gradually increase it if you like. The point I mainly want to make is that this is a herb that you should feel working the same day you use it... it may need to be sent in a few times to get the maximum benefit but if you use it right then you will eventually start feeling it to be like a friend who is there when you need them.

For a person who has a chronic problem that involves the kind of tension that Cramp bark can help heal then I recommend a daily dose of at least 1 or 2 mls to gradually ease the body into a more relaxed state of functioning. I've only ever used Cramp bark as a tincture so would rather not comment on dosage levels with the tea. I love it that I can trust Cramp bark's relaxing action without having to have any worry about it being at all sedating or having any kind of side effects. Cramp bark is an extremely safe herb that can be used with complete confidence that it will do no harm.

Cramp bark combines perfectly with Wild Yam for pain in the pelvic organs, with Lobelia for breathing difficulties and with Skullcap for excess nervous tension overall.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Cramp bark is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B.

There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Cramp bark can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

Cramp bark is very effective in relaxing cramps and spasms of all kinds, as asthma, hysteria, cramps of the limbs or other parts in females, especially during pregnancy

It is highly beneficial to those who are subject to convulsions during pregnancy, or at the time of parturition, preventing the attacks entirely, if used daily for the last 2 months of gestation.

Like Viburnum prunifolium, it is a remedy for the prevention of abortion, and to prepare the way for the process of parturition.

It has been used in spasmodic contraction of the bladder, and in spasmodic stricture
It allays uterine irritation while in the neuralgic and spasmodic forms of dysmenorrhoea and it is a favourite remedy with many physicians.

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd