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Natural Pain Relief Guide

When managing chronic pain, natural options can be just as effective as pharmaceuticals—with fewer potential side effects.

| January/February 2016

  • Fish and Lemon on Plate
    Eating fish and other foods rich in fatty acids known as omega-3s can help regulate long-term pain, especially joint pain.
    Photo by iStock
  • Bottle of Rosemary Essential Oil
    Rosemary essential oil stimulates circulation and helps to relieve pain.
    Photo by iStock
  • Warm in-ground pool
    A soothing warm bath can help chase away joint pain, back aches and more. A warm-water pool is another therapeutic option.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Willow Bark and Willow Bark Oil
    Willow bark is an herbal equivalent for over-the-counter painkillers.
    Photo by iStock

  • Fish and Lemon on Plate
  • Bottle of Rosemary Essential Oil
  • Warm in-ground pool
  • Willow Bark and Willow Bark Oil

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.

Add Fish to Your Diet

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.

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