A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Since ancient times the fragrant plant secretion known as myrrh has been used in incense, perfume, and even as a painkiller. Now a team of chemists and pharmacologists at the University of Florence in Italy report that two compounds of myrrh do indeed have pain-relieving properties. The researchers initially observed that mice injected with a myrrh solution were slower than a control group in reacting to the heat of a metal plate. They tested three main compounds of myrrh and found that two of them--furanoeudesma-1,3-diene and curzarene--had pronounced analgesic effects. Additional tests suggested that these compounds interact with the opioid receptors in the mice's brains to decrease the sensation of pain.
Myrrh has been used medicinally for centuries, for treating conditions ranging from battle wounds to skin inflammations. The Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed it for sores, and the Romans used it to treat worm infestations, coughs, and certain infections. According to the New Testament, Jesus was offered wine with myrrh before his crucifixion. Piero Dolara, one of the researchers, says that more effective painkillers such as morphine, developed in the nineteenth century, replaced myrrh as an analgesic. It is commonly used today in mouthwash and toothpaste.