Can Kava Supplements Kill Your Pain?

The natural medicinal qualities of this Pacific plant may have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects.

Kava—a plant historically used to make a popular drink in southern and western Pacific regions—has medicinal qualities that are growing in appreciation throughout the world.

In its natural form, kava (aka, kava-kava) is a shrub in the pepper family, botanically known as Piper Methysticum. The root of the kava plant has been used for centuries in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Polynesia, to make a tea consumed during religious ceremonies. In these areas, kava beverages are also served in kava bars, where they are consumed the same way as alcohol—that is, to relax and socialize with friends.

Natural Benefits

Scientists first took an interest in the psychological benefits of kava and, more recently, have been looking at the plant’s potential physical benefits as well. Active compounds found in the kava root and other parts of the plant, known as kavalactones or kavapyrones, are known to have pain-killing, anti-convulsant, and neuroprotective properties. In human and laboratory studies, these natural components have shown to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, and synthetic varieties developed in laboratories were found to have similar and sometimes greater effectiveness than the natural form.

Kava plant illustration

Different types of pain respond to different types of treatments. Kava extracts have been used to significantly reduce chronic nociceptive pain, a type of pain that is felt when nerve cells are stimulated by harm to the body, rather than when they are directly infected or injured. Specifically, nociceptive pain may be felt when receptors throughout the body detect damage to skin, muscles, bones, or connective tissue, and then send pain signals to the brain and central nervous system. Kava has been to help reduce nocioceptive pain, as well as orofacial pain, which is chronic pain that is localized above the neck, in front of the ears, and below the centerline of the eyes, and includes the area inside the mouth.

Proponents of herbal medications also recommend kava to help relieve joint pain, back pain, muscle spasms, migraine headaches, and neuralgia associated with cystic fibrosis. Other active ingredients extracted from the kava plant, known as flavokawains, are being studied in laboratories for their anticancer effects, and have been specifically examined in studies linked to lung, prostate, colon, and bladder cancers.


Kava is commercially available from a variety of manufacturers as a powder, liquid extract, or capsule. The powder can be used to make a warm tea beverage, whereas liquid extract is typically added to a small amount of water before drinking. The capsules are taken as a dietary supplement. Kava is also sometimes added to blended products, such as Yogi herbal tea bags, Kalm with Kava flavored drink concentrates, and even candies in various flavors from Ozia Originals.

There are no official dosage recommendations for kava, and different brands, forms, and batches contain varying amounts of active ingredients, which may or may not be effective for any particular medicinal use.

Dosage and Risks

As a dietary supplement, kava is not FDA approved and the agency has issued several advisory warnings about kava’s connection to liver damage. The American Botanical Council, however, advises 60 to 120 mg of kavapyrones (or kavalactones) as a safe and effective daily dosage for a period no longer than three months, unless otherwise prescribed and taken under medical supervision. Before self-medicating, however, discuss the use of kava preparations with your physician, especially if you take any other supplements or medication for pain relief or other reasons.

Kava is reported to have sedative qualities and may impair motor skills at high doses. Studies have shown that kava can also cause risky drug-supplement interactions that may need to be recognized and addressed in advance of use. And although kava beverages have been used extensively in Pacific regions for many years, side effects that include skin rash and liver toxicity have, at times, been associated with the use of kava preparations in Western countries.

“The main concern with kava supplements is how they interact with other substances in patients who are highly sensitive or who are taking different types of pain medication,” says health psychologist David E. Bresler, PhD, Lac, founder of The Bresler Center in Los Angeles and founder and former director of the UCLA Pain Control Unit. “One patient can respond very differently than another to the same dose of a medication or supplement.”

Although kava beverages have been used extensively in Pacific regions for so many years, side effects that include skin rash and liver toxicity have, at times, been associated with the use of kava preparations in Western countries. According to Dr. Bresler, more research is needed in order for practitioners and patients to fully understand the full benefits and risks of these supplements.

Updated on: 01/22/18
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