Castor Oil for Pain


Castor Oil for Pain

An Age-Old Remedy Provides Powerful Pain Relief

Over the years, I have seen the topical use of castor oil relieve moderate-to-severe pain in patients who were not responding to pharmaceutical pain relievers, and restore mobility to stiff and achy joints in patients with arthritis. And while most naturopathic doctors are likely familiar with this age-old treatment, my intention with this article is to offer reminders of when a simple castor oil pack may provide an affordable and low-risk option for calming inflammation and reducing pain.


Long before our naturopathic ancestors discovered the castor plant (Ricinus communis), the Greeks and Egyptians were using extracts from the castor bean for both topical and internal use to address a wide variety of health conditions. The unprocessed castor beans and seeds are severely toxic due to their ricin content. The oil itself has been classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as generally recognized as safe and effective for use internally as a stimulant laxative, and undecylenic acid, which is derived from the castor plant, has been FDA-approved for topical use as an antifungal agent.

“How does it work?” my patients often ask, once they have marveled at the drastic shift in their pain levels after only a few topical castor oil treatments. The little research available about the mechanism of action for castor oil’s topical anti-inflammatory effects indicates that the main component of castor oil, ricinoleic acid, is likely responsible for its pain-relieving properties. An animal study comparing the effectiveness of topical use of ricinoleic acid (RA) with capsaicin in reducing an induced inflammatory state demonstrated that both preparations reduced edema and substance P levels in the post-acute stage of inflammation. However, the RA was less irritating to surrounding tissue, and therefore may represent a viable alternative to capsaicin for topical inflammatory relief.


For those familiar with castor oil treatments, the traditional castor oil pack no doubt comes to mind. Less well-known is the “roll-on” alternative, which is often less messy and results in greater compliance. Both techniques are outlined here:

Traditional “Pack”

Piece of cloth (flannel, wool or cotton) cut to 2-3 times the size of the area of application

Plastic wrap or ace bandage to secure pack in place

Old t-shirt or clothing to cover the pack and protect clothing from staining

Castor oil

Heating source (hot water bottle, heating pad)

Zip-lock bag for storing the pack between use


Fold the piece of cloth so that it is 2-3 layers thick and carefully apply oil until the cloth is soaked in the oil. Ring out excess oil over a dish or the sink.

To pre-heat the castor oil pack, place the pack in a heat-safe glass dish and then heat, using the microwave or oven

Place the castor oil pack directly over the area of pain or inflammation while relaxing comfortably, and cover the pack using an old t-shirt or cloth to protect bedding and other clothing from staining. Secure placement of the pack as needed, using plastic wrap or ace bandage.

Apply external heat source for approximately 30 min

After removing heat, the castor oil pack can remain applied overnight

Store castor oil pack in refrigerator between use for up to several months, and apply additional oil as needed

Roll-on Alternative (Note: This method is less messy and usually results in higher compliance)

Apply castor oil in a roller ball form directly over the area of pain or inflammation

Cover the area with an old cloth or t-shirt

Apply an external heating source (hot water bottle or heating pad) for approximately 30 min and then remove heat

Keep the oil applied overnight while protecting sheets and other clothing from staining, and wash off the oil in the morning

(Adapted from Bastyr Clinic handout; revised September 5, 2002)


Castor oil packs are generally not recommended during pregnancy, over areas of active bleeding (wounds, ulcers, during menses), in cases of suspected appendicitis, or in patients with bleeding disorders. Also exercise caution with individuals who have neuropathy, skin sensitivity, or chemical sensitivity.