When managing chronic pain, natural options can be just as effective as pharmaceuticals—with fewer potential side effects.
Recurring pain, versus acute pain related to a recent injury, can be wearing. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs are obvious solutions, but some common pain medications have serious possible side effects associated with long-term use—for example, acetaminophen can cause liver damage with overuse. Side effects of other common medications include increased risk of heart attack and stroke, liver and kidney problems, stomach bleeding and addiction.
Fortunately, many natural strategies for pain relief can reduce our reliance on medication. Remember that many of these strategies take time—not days, but weeks or months—to offer benefits. Natural remedies don’t work immediately like pharmaceuticals do, but over time they can relieve pain just as effectively. It’s particularly beneficial to use natural options for chronic pain, as most pain medicines’ risk of side effects increases with repeated or continual use. In the best cases, natural therapies not only relieve pain with minimal side effects, but offer additional health benefits, as well.
You’ve heard of omega-3s in relation to heart health, but did you know they can be useful for managing pain? These compounds are found in many foods—fish including salmon, herring and sardines are a particularly good source, but omega-3s are also found in flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, grape leaves, eggs from pasture-raised chickens, and pasture-raised beef. While they’re more often discussed in connection with other health issues—in particular, omega-3s are associated with heart health and with the development of the brain and nervous systems—research suggests they can also play a role in pain relief.
For example, a 2006 study found that omega-3s were as effective as ibuprofen in reducing pain in the back and neck. Fish oil also appears to be useful in treating joint pain for rheumatoid arthritis, and some research suggests it has potential for treating migraines and menstrual cramps. It wouldn’t be surprising if future research found even more benefits: Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory action, and many health conditions are associated with inflammation.
To consume enough omega-3s from your diet, the American Heart Association recommends adults eat fatty fish twice weekly, and also consume plant-based sources such as tofu and walnuts. Taking supplements is another option to consider. If so, talk to your health care provider to determine dosages and consider possible side effects. For example, fish oil can cause problems for people taking blood thinners. Always buy supplements from reputable companies that use ethical sourcing and monitor supplements for contaminants. Nordic Naturals is a brand we recommend.
Finally, keep a few things in mind: First, the effects may not be immediate—in the studies mentioned above, people were given fish oil for weeks at a time. Also, because of issues with pollution, pregnant women and young children need to be cautious about which types of fish they eat. General guidelines about fish consumption can be found online from the FDA.
A number of herbs also show promise for treating pain—here are a few that are especially interesting. Keep in mind that side effects do exist, and not all of these treatments are appropriate for everyone. As always, talk to your health-care practitioner about any new treatment before beginning it, and ask for guidance on appropriate dosages.
Turmeric for osteoarthritis: This food and herb contains curcumin, known for its potent anti-inflammatory action. It looks promising as a treatment for osteoarthritis. Curcumin has few side effects, although extended use of high doses can sometimes cause stomach upset.
Willow bark for lower back pain: If you’re looking for an herbal equivalent to over-the-counter painkillers, white willow bark is a good choice; it’s comparable in use to aspirin, to which it is chemically similar. The evidence is strongest for willow bark’s ability to relieve low back pain.
Butterbur for migraines: Studies have suggested that the herb butterbur can help prevent migraines, but use it with caution. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, natural compounds in butterbur, can damage the liver, so many experts recommend taking preparations labeled “PA-free.”
Arnica gel for sore muscles and joints: Arnica is an anti-inflammatory herb commonly used as a topical treatment for bruises, sprains, aching muscles and arthritis. Some of the best evidence is for its use as a gel for osteoarthritis in hands. Experts caution against applying it to
broken skin. Do not ingest arnica.
Devils claw for osteoarthritis and back and neck pain. Devil’s claw is used widely in Germany and France to relieve arthritis pain, headache and low back pain, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Several studies have found that, taken for eight to 12 weeks, devil’s claw can reduce pain and improve physical function in people with osteoarthritis; in one four-month study, devil’s claw relieved pain as much as a commercial medication. Studies have also found it able to reduce low back and neck pain as effectively as a prescription pain reliever. Taken short-term at recommended doses, devil’s claw is safe. Those with stomach ulcers, gallstones, and pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take devil’s claw. Devil’s claw can interact with some medications, so consult your doctor if combining the herb with other drugs.
Cayenne for arthritis, nerve pain and psoriasis. Capsaicin offers powerful pain-relieving properties when applied to the skin because of its ability to reduce the amount of a chemical called substance P, which carries pain messages to the brain, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. It is often recommended for topical use for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis; muscle pain from fibromyalgia; nerve pain from shingles (research is mixed); nerve damage in the legs or feet from diabetes (but not peripheral neuropathy from HIV); and low back pain. It can also reduce itching and inflammation from psoriasis. Never use cayenne in conjunction with a heating pad; never use it just after or before a hot shower; and use caution not to touch your eyes after touching it. People with allergies to latex, bananas, kiwi, chestnuts or avocado may also be allergic to cayenne. Cayenne interacts with medications, so check with your doctor before combining the herb with other drugs.
Research has found that a wide range of more hands-on complementary therapies can help with pain relief.
Get physical—yoga and tai chi: Although these two practices come from different traditions (yoga originated in India, tai chi in China), they have a lot in common. Both combine meditation and movement, and when practiced as a slow, low-impact exercise, both have proven useful to some people in managing pain. Research has found that yoga can be effective for managing lower back pain, and in some cases, yoga can help people manage arthritis pain. Similarly, studies have suggested that tai chi has benefits for people with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.
Keep in mind that if neither of these practices sounds appealing to you, you can also gain benefits from simple stretching and strengthening exercises. If you need guidance, talk to a physical therapist or other health-care professional.
Work it out—massage therapy: Studies have found that massage therapy can be useful for chronic low back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis of the knee, and may even provide some relief for women in labor—not to mention stress relief. To sum up: Yes, you can totally justify getting regular massages for pain management.
Controversy? Spinal adjustment and acupuncture: The science is mixed on these two therapies, performed by professional chiropractors and acupuncturists. You may have to make up your own mind about whose advice to take, because within the medical and scientific communities there are some serious differences of opinion.
While some studies have shown that spinal adjustment can help manage lower back pain, it remains a controversial treatment. As an illustration of this, a few years ago American Family Physician printed four related commentaries on whether spinal adjustment was effective for pain management—two pro and two con.
Similarly, some studies have found that acupuncture can provide relief for issues including lower back pain, neck pain, knee pain from osteoarthritis and reducing the frequency of headaches. Other studies have found no effect. Critics often maintain the pain relief people have reported is merely a placebo effect.
If you want to educate yourself about the issues and what is and isn’t backed up by scientific evidence, a great source for learning about these and other complementary therapies is the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. If you do decide to try either of these practices, there are few safety concerns as long as you are sure to select a licensed professional.
Turn your bath into a powerful weapon against aches, stiffness and fatigue.
Soaking in warm water is one of the oldest forms of medicine, and research has shown warm water therapy works wonders for all kinds of musculoskeletal complaints, including fibromyalgia, arthritis and low back pain.
“The research shows our ancestors got it right,” says Bruce E. Becker, director of the National Aquatics & Sports Medicine Institute at Washington State University in Spokane. “It makes you feel better. It makes the joints looser. It reduces pain and it seems to have a somewhat prolonged effect that goes beyond the period of immersion.”
So how long should you soak? Becker says patients he’s studied seem to reach a maximum benefit after about 20 minutes. And make sure you drink water before and afterward to stay well hydrated. Try the simple steps below to make the most of a bath.
Go warm, not hot. Water temperatures between 92 and 100 degrees are a healthy range. If you have cardiovascular problems, beware of water that’s too hot because it can put stress on the heart.
Don’t just sit there. Warm water stimulates blood flow to stiff muscles and frozen joints, making a warm tub or pool an ideal place to do some gentle stretching. To ease low back pain, trap a tennis ball between the small of your back and the bottom or back of the tub, then lean into it and roll it against knotted muscles.
Add some salts. Epsom salts are relatively inexpensive, can be found at grocery and drug stores, and can boost magnesium levels as much as 35 percent, according to researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. But don’t go overboard; the National Institutes of Health warns these salts should only be for occasional use. People with diabetes should be aware, too, that high levels of magnesium can stimulate insulin release.
Consider finding a warm water pool. Warm water can be so helpful in fighting the pain and stiffness of arthritis and fibromyalgia that experts recommend heated pools for exercise. A variety of studies of patients with both conditions found that when they took part in warm water exercise programs two or three times a week, their pain decreased as much as 40 percent and their physical function increased.
Reprinted with permission from The Arthritis Foundation.
Aromatherapy Aid Although robust clinical trials are lacking, some scientific studies and a long history of anecdotal evidence point to the benefits of aromatherapy in the management of chronic pain—studies indicate that aromatherapy is especially good at relieving the anxiety and depression that often accompany chronic pain. One theory is that aromatherapy works because the scent receptors in the nose send chemical messages to the brain’s limbic system, producing signals to relax. Some of the most effective uses for essential oils are in conjunction with other therapies mentioned here, such as massage and baths. To make an aromatherapeutic massage or bath oil, combine pure essential oils with a carrier oil, such as jojoba or sunflower oil.
These are some of the most commonly used essential oils for pain management:
Lavender: Antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic
Chamomile: Anti-inflammatory, relaxant, antidepressant
Marjoram: Antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory
Rosemary: Stimulates circulation, relieves pain
Cypress: Stimulates circulation
Peppermint: Digestive, decongestive, stimulating
Eucalyptus: Decongestive, stimulating
Bergamot: Antidepressant, anti-inflammatory