The Health Benefits of Cramp Bark (Viburnum)

Cramp bark comes from an ornamental plant (Viburnum opulus) long used in herbal medicine, primarily by Native Americans. The berries of the viburnum plant were sometimes consumed as food and other parts of the plant were smoked as an alternative to tobacco.

A red viburnum plant in the sunlight
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An extract made from the bark and roots of the plant is used by some to treat different types of cramps and a variety of other conditions ranging from ulcers to kidney stone prevention. However, there is not enough scientific evidence to know if cramp bark provides any medical or health benefit.

Also Known As

Other names are used to refer to cramp bark, including:

  • Cranberry bush
  • European cranberry-bush
  • Guelder rose
  • High bush cranberry
  • Rose de gueldre
  • Snowball bush
  • Viburno opulus

Cramp bark from viburnum opulus should not be confused with black haw (Vibernum prunifolium)—which is sometimes also called cramp bark.

Health Benefits

Research has shown that viburnum bark contains several compounds found to enhance health, including ellagic acid, a chemical with antioxidant benefits. The chemical constituents esculetin and viopudial are also major players and are known to be antispasmodic, lending to the herb's common name, "cramp bark."

In alternative medicine, viburnum bark is generally used to treat conditions involving spasms and muscular cramping including:

  • Low back pain 
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Tension headaches
  • Stomach pain
  • Asthma

It is also believed to have anti-inflammatory and calming properties and may be used to treat the following conditions:

  • General inflammation
  • Chronic pain
  • High blood pressure

In addition, viburnum bark is said to reduce fluid retention, as it is a mild diuretic. However, there isn't a lot of scientific research to support these uses. Research involving cramp bark has been limited so far and has focused on just a few conditions.

Muscle Cramps

In studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, scientists found that certain compounds present in viburnum bark may help suppress muscle spasms and reduce muscle tension. Although viburnum bark is commonly used for conditions involving muscle spasms and muscle tension (such as menstrual cramps and low back pain), there is a lack of recent research on viburnum bark's effectiveness against such conditions.

Kidney Stone Prevention

Limited research has been conducted on the potential for cramp bark to be used as a treatment for a condition called hypocitraturia—a known risk factor for the development of kidney stones. However, there has only been one study that has investigated this benefit. Cramp bark doesn't help prevent kidney stones, but may be useful in helping pass kidney stones due to its antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscle of the kidney. More rigorous studies are needed to see if cramp bark is effective.

Ulcers

A 2006 study on rats published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology determined that antioxidants found in viburnum fruit may help protect against the gastrointestinal damage associated with ulcer development. However, studies on humans have not been performed, so it is unclear if ulcer patients would benefit.

Possible Side Effects

There is currently a lack of clinical trials testing viburnum's safety or health effects, so it's unknown whether viburnum supplements are safe for long-term use. However, there's some concern that taking viburnum in combination with blood pressure medication or antibiotics may have harmful effects.

Additionally, it is possible that the chemicals in cramp bark that reduce muscle spasms also lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate.

Cramp bark contains oxalates, which should be taken into consideration in persons with a history of oxalate stone formation (even though it may be useful in passing other types of kidney stones, as noted above). Note that there has been no documentation of this, it's simply theoretical.

The safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend viburnum as a treatment for any condition. It's also important to note that self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. If you're considering using it for any health purpose, make sure to consult your healthcare provider first.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Viburnum is sold in supplement form in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements. Additionally, viburnum supplements are widely available for purchase online.

There is not enough research about cramp bark to determine a standard dose.

However, keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may provide ingredients not listed on the label. It may also deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb.

Because dietary supplements are largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, you may want to look for products that have been certified by ConsumerLabs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International. These organizations don't guarantee that a product is safe or effective, but they do provide a certain level of testing for quality. It may be helpful to work with a practitioner knowledgeable in the use of herbal medicines to guide your supplement selection, along with appropriate dosing. Seek out a licensed naturopathic doctor or registered herbalist.

What Does Cramp Bark Taste Like?

Most describe the taste of cramp bark as bitter. Some also say that it has a strong odor.

Alternatives to Using Cramp Bark for Muscle Pain

If you're seeking natural relief of a condition associated with muscle tension or muscle spasms, several remedies may serve as an alternative to viburnum.

For help in relieving low back pain, consider the use of capsaicin cream, white willow bark, and/or devil's claw. To soothe menstrual cramps, remedies like raspberry leaf tea and ginger may be beneficial. 

In addition, many mind-body therapies may help curb chronic pain. These therapies include guided imagery, massage, acupuncture, and yoga.

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